Whenever I write about difficult parent stuff (like yesterday) my inbox immediately gets filled with more difficult parent and family estrangement stuff, which makes sense because, people find out they aren’t alone and I have quite a lot to say about difficult parent stuff. It takes…a lot…to write about my family and I know I am not going to be able to answer all of these the way they deserve, so I want to gather some advice and resources in one place. I’m also going to make this an open thread where people can talk to each other about difficult family stuff.
Here are a some of the Captain Awkward Difficult Family Greatest Hits. The tags parents, boundaries, family, faaaaaaaamily and emotional abuse will get you more.
- The Worry Wyvern And The Dragon Of Disappointment (#583)
- Anxious Parents And Freeing Yourself From Constant Contact (#997)
- Should I Move Away From My Abusive Family?(#122)
- Graduation Days (esp. #1181)
- I’m Moving In With My Girlfriend And Now My Homophobic Parents Want To Disown Me (#1194)
- Marrying Into A Family With Awful Boundary Issues (or, Secrets of Highly Difficult People) (#247)
- #1182, #1183, #1184: “Do I have to be friends with my sibling?” or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At
- My Family Keeps Pressuring Me To Make Peace With My Abusive Brother (#1099)
- Is It Ever Safe To Take A Difficult Parent Off A ‘Low Information Diet’? (#1233)
- Being Pushed To Forgive Because Faaaaaaaamily (#577)
- My Mom Is Pressuring Me To Invite My Molester To My Wedding And It Sucks BIG TIME (#209) – guest post by the incomparable PFC Marie
- My Mom’s Boyfriend Is A Sex Offender (#1191) – guest post by the amazing Lenée (who wants to come back and answer questions for us soon).
- How Do I Tell My Conservative Dad About My Fiancée’s Transition? (#38) – guest post by Raymond J., whom I miss all the time. He makes beautiful music.
- Reassuring Abusive Parents (It’s A Trap!)(#995)
- I Broke Ties With My Abusive Parents As An Adult…Now What? (#914)
- I’m Worried About My Sister. She Is Still Very Close To Our Abusive Parents (#6)
- How Do I Come Out To My Abusive Parents About Being On Antidepressants? (#1180)
- On ‘Keeping The Peace’ With An Unlikeable Mansplainer (#497)
- I’m Being Pressured To Reconcile With My Estranged Grandmother Now That She’s Dying (#943)
- Help With Emotional Baggage That Is Packed In Literal Boxes (#1129)
- Can I Bar My Son’s Unlikeable Girlfriend From Family Events (#533)
- My Mom Is Obsessed With My Looks And My Weight (#824)
- How To Deal With A Well-Meaning But Controlling Mother-In-Law (#926)
- Difficult Mom Wants To Be Closer (#785)
- Visits With Highly Difficult People (#655) (Possibly first “reasons are for reasonable people” incidence on the site, but not the last).
Common Themes and Recommendations:
- If your childhood and parent relationships are impacting you heavily in the present (a good indicator is, you start an advice column letter with “ever since I was a child” or talk a lot about your childhood as it impacts a present-day situation), consider therapy. It’s not perfect, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s useful for anything, “placing our history in perspective so the past doesn’t have to keep eating the present” is one of those things.
- Your parent may not want to get a therapist or make friends but it doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist or their only friend. (You might also want to read about parentification, a form of child abuse where the parent expects the child to take care of their emotional well-being and assume an adult role in the family.)
- If you’re dreading upcoming holiday gatherings, what if you skipped all of it this year and did something you could look forward to? What does a Happy Holiday actually look like to you and could this be the year you make one?
- You don’t owe abusive people a deathbed reconciliation, endless chances to hurt you, access to their grandchildren, a continuation of every single family tradition in the exact way they would prefer it, or a story of a happy childhood that makes everyone look good.
- Predictable rituals and structures can help sometimes. For instance, if you’re being overwhelmed with constant contact from a needy or intrusive parent, try channeling it into a weekly phone call (or some other way of staying in touch – the form doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can sustainably do).
- You don’t owe your family every scrap of information about you. People who judge and punish your choices maybe don’t get to be in the loop about your choices anymore.
- You’re the boss of your body: what you eat, what you wear on it, who gets to touch it and how, how you treat illnesses and problems that occur, how you feel about it. You. Nobody else. You.
- The first time you say no or otherwise set a boundary is the hardest. Expect an “extinction burst” and other attempts to test and get around the boundary, expect to be chewed out for being selfish, rude, unreasonable, ungrateful, etc. If you can weather this storm and hold fast, it will almost certainly get easier from there. Never easy, but easier. Be consistent over time and see what happens.
- I’m generally pro “let’s hash this out honestly and straightforwardly ask for what we need!” but not everybody is capable of that and not everything gets better by talking through it in detail. There are things in life that we might never get to the bottom of.
- Be wary of the word “should” coming from someone who is routinely not nice to you. Does your family want connection or do they want a performance? Lots of things “should” happen. What is happening. Start there.
- Be wary of people who think that being related means they get to skip all politeness and kindness when it comes to you.
- Be especially wary of people who think that being related means they don’t have to make an effort to be kind but you have to make effort to please them at all times. “But we’re a family!” claims that are all about what you owe them and nothing about how they are supposed to treat you are hollow bullshit.
- If you interview to work somewhere and they tell you “we’re just like a family here!” it means: This place sucks at boundaries and will suck you dry. Maybe you need this job, but…don’t get too comfortable. Nobody who ever says this about work is talking about a cool, good, supportive family.
- Roads, planes, and phones work both ways.
- People have choices about how they treat you.
- People can be “doing their best;” their best can be not what you need. Not all help is helpful, intentions aren’t magic, people can mean well and do not so great. “I meant well” and “I did my best” can be true, that doesn’t mean it was okay and that nothing has to change.
- If someone tells you they aren’t in touch with a parent anymore, before you tell them they’ll regret it or “you only get one mother!” or open your mouth to say anything about “forgiveness” or reconciliation, consider just how bad something would have to get for this to be the safest decision. Estranged parents like to pretend they get ignored and abandoned willy-nilly, my inbox tells the story of adult kids who have been auditioning for basic love and kindness for decades and not getting it and who still want desperately to connect.
- If someone gives you the silent treatment, instead of chasing them and auditioning for their approval and attention, try changing tactics: Enjoy the silence for a change. It’s painful and stressful but isn’t it a tiny bit better than the constant criticism/screaming/disappointment/pressure?
- That said, it’s okay to still love your family, to still want a family, to still want to try, even when the history is bad. You’re not silly for caring about this or wanting to fix it even if the expectations need to stay low for safety’s sake.
- You don’t have to be perfect or communicate your needs perfectly in order to deserve kindness and consideration. One of the most healing things I ever did was to let out how upset and angry I was feeling without strategizing about what would convince the other person that I was allowed to feel that way.
- Repeat after me: “I can live with my family’s disapproval, but I cannot accept their unkindness and abuse.”
- Some relationships will never become healed, “normal,” good, “close,” or resemble what they “should” be like. Some shit is unfixable. Let’s honor that. For some of us, “slightly better” is a win. “Not completely awful” is a win. Sometimes you can build on that. Let’s honor that, too.
Questions Within Questions:
If you’ve written to me because you live with difficult family members and your home life is your chief source of stress, my #1 piece of advice is: Move out as soon as you can manage it. Abusers do not change as long as they have easy access to their targets. Put 95% of your energies into finding a different living situation – maybe with a different family member, maybe with friends or roommates, maybe on-campus housing, maybe a house-sitter or caretaker-type situation, maybe public housing/assisted living where that’s available, leave no resource un-tapped or un-researched to get yourself out – and like, 5% into changing the dynamic at home. The dankest closet in a place where nobody yells at you can be a paradise. Some how-to info is here. More here. I realize that not everyone can move out, or move out right away, so here is some info about how to endure in the meantime.
I hate that I don’t have more to offer people who must live with mean people. I wish I had approximately 100 million dollars to start a series of chill queer communes with fast internet, robust counseling and disability services, quiet spots for introverts and gathering places/weekly events for extroverts, highly-paid household help so nobody has to fight about cleaning the toilet ever again, highly-paid free-to-residents childcare on the premises, we’d just incorporate and buy the best group health insurance for everyone, plus there’d be a maker space full of art supplies and craft tools and carpentry stuff, and a “Call The Goat Lady And Her Army Of Assorted Internet Aunts” hotline to remind you to eat a food and take your meds. We would set them up one by one in swing districts and be like, “Congratulations, your city council is run by gay socialist unicorns now.” :throws glitter:
If you’ve asked me, “When it is it okay to go low- or no-contact with a parent, how do I know it’s bad enough, how do I know I’m being fair,” here is your answer:
You don’t have to decide all at once, forever, right now. You don’t have to be fair. If you think taking a break from working on your relationship with your family or spending time with them would make you feel better and give you some peace from the stuff that’s bothering and hurting you, try it out. Be less available. Don’t visit. Skip The Holidays™ this year. Do less work. Take some time for yourself. Work with a therapist if you can, dump all the feelings out in a journal if you can. Volunteer less information. Hide/lock down your social media and reclaim your privacy. RSVP “no” to family events for a while. Then see how you feel. If things get better and you feel better, if you miss them terribly or want to try something else down the road, try that. They will probably notice and have feelings about whatever it is you’re doing, people don’t to wait like flies in amber for you to be ready to engage with them again, but you don’t need to ask for permission or make a dramatic statement to slow fade for a while and see how you feel.
If you’ve asked me to help you explain to your parents precisely why you are cutting them off in a way that will make them understand your decision, here’s your answer:
Reasons are for reasonable people. The probability is that no matter what you say, parents who have driven you to the point of cutting them off won’t ever understand, won’t ever apologize, and they won’t ever change, so tell them literally whatever makes you feel like you got it all off your chest and then go have some peace. If that’s “nothing,” tell them nothing. If that’s “I need some space, I’ll get in touch when I’m ready, until then please respect my privacy” tell them that. If you’re thinking of this communication as a way to get them to see how they fucked up and apologize and fix it, I am so sorry, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. They won’t get it, but do you still need to say it? Keep your expectations low about what they’ll do and be good to yourself.
The best book I know about difficult family dynamics, estrangement, and boundaries is Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? You don’t have to be a daughter, you don’t have to be concerned about a mother, and nobody has to be “narcissistic” for the tools on how to navigate setting boundaries and possibly going low contact or no-contact with a parent to be valuable. From a past rec:
“The one takeaway from that book that sticks with me to this day, 5+ years after reading it, is that while you can sometimes reset a difficult relationship with someone who has “all about me!” tendencies to be more pleasant overall, you cannot expect to necessarily have an emotionally authentic relationship and you should let go of the prospect of either a reckoning with the past or a self-aware admission of how the person created and contributes to the dynamic between you. McBride suggests grieving for what was lost and what you should have had, keeping your expectations low, and disengaging without guilt when self-care demands it.”
- Treat people like the experts on their own experiences. If your family is happy and kind, then, respectfully, you might not know what we’re talking about and it’s okay to just read without commenting, especially if the alternative is trying to come up with Good Reasons™ an abusive family member could reasonably be behaving that way. “You look good today” can be a compliment or a mortal insult depending on the context, trust that the letter writer/commenter/storytellers know the context.
- Read the site policies, especially if you’re new and it’s been a while.
- Logistical Note: The spam trap eats legit comments all the time. I clean it out as soon as I can. I know it’s very annoying, but generally you don’t have to send repeats if something didn’t post the first time.
- If recommending a book, article, community etc. you’ve personally found helpful in the comments, along with any links please include a sentence or two on what the recommendation is about and why, personally, you think it’s valuable.
- Re: Above point, remember, we don’t have to audit or debate people’s personal recommendations to come to an objective standard of what is valuable – everybody can read reviews and do due diligence and use what’s useful and ignore the rest.
I love this community. I love us. We can’t fix it but we can be here for each other and bear witness for each other. Thank you. Comments are open.
423 thoughts on ““We Are Spartacus!”: Open Thread & Resources On Family Estrangement And Adult Relationships With Difficult Parents”
Chill queer commune sounds like heaven to me ❤ ❤
“You don’t owe abusive people a deathbed reconciliation, endless chances to hurt you, access to their grandchildren, a continuation of every single family tradition in the exact way they would prefer it, or a story of a happy childhood that makes everyone look good.”
Going to extrapolate here, but: you don’t owe your time and attention to ANYONE who is also an independent adult, whether they be related to you by blood or marriage. All of these tasks are things you do because you want to support and build a relationship *which you value.* You are not obligated to build a relationship which is not one you value, even if it’s not an explicitly abusive one, even if it’s a relationship you’re culturally expected to treasure.
Example. I have a close family member who, while being by no stretch of the imagination abusive, has reliably been rude or disrespectful to me for the last . . . I dunno, five years? I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose. I could probably take measures to address this and get him to act more kindly to me, at significant emotional cost to myself. But dude also doesn’t bring good conversation or anything else I value into my life, so I just . . . let it be in the state where I never contact him (and he never makes an effort to contact me), and put my energies into people who reciprocate easily.
It doesn’t have to be abuse. It can just be “this shit makes me sad and tired and I don’t want to.”
ACK, I’m sorry, this wasn’t supposed to be a response!
Definitely. If I had any actual money I’d donate to the cause in a heartbeat.
Heck yes I wanna live in a Big Gay Commune
Hell, I’m straight, and I’d live in a Big Gay Commune.
…if they were okay having me there.
I’m in a situation where the only thing I can do right now is keep my head down and wait for my housing application to be approved. Captain, I can’t thank you enough for your work on this blog; it’s my first port of call whenever I need a reminder of what I’m aiming for (freedom, less aggravation for my PTSD).
Fellow Awkwardeers, you are not alone ❤
Mira Kirsenbaum’s ‘ Too Good to Leave, To Bad to Stay’ is written for people in stressful, possibly abusive marriages and romantic relationships, but I have found her sensible, non-judgemental thought process to be helpful for people figuring out if it’s worth it to leave their parents as well.
The emphasis on the book is seeing how many options you have and figuring out resources you might be unaware of to safely move out and cut off contact. It also helps manage feelings of guilt you may struggle with around “abandoning” your partner or parents (air quotes because you aren’t actually abandoning them, even if they believe otherwise.)
Kirsenbaum names specific behaviors and talks about their emotional and psychological effects. In many ways, it’s helpful because she never uses the term “abuse” or makes an abuse checklist, because often a person can feel defensive that someone they love may be an abuser. Instead, by looking at behaviors and effects of behaviors, it’s easier to acknowledge that, “this person is doing things that harm me; what do I do next?” and then make the plan that works best for you.
It’s available in most libraries, and Amazon has a used copy for $5 with free shipping.
Thank you for this recommendation, Igmerriman! I’m going to check with the couples therapist on Monday and then (probably even if he’s “meh” about this book) pick up a copy.
I wholeheartedly second this book recommendation. I bought and read it when I was having problems in my marriage. It supports decision-making that makes sense for you; which is why, after using her guidance to work through The Stuff, I suddenly realized that I could actively choose to stay in the marriage — and felt the full drain of anxiety and rush of relief when I made that decision. Whatever path or action it leads you to (leaving, staying, limited contact, no contact, everything else), it will be one that is right for you.
I heartily third this recommendation. It’s completely empirical: Every chapter is, “If X is the case, then among my past clients, people who left/stayed seem to have ended up more/less happy.” Plus a case example. No moralizing or psychoanalysis, just data.
That doesn’t mean it makes the decision easy. You have to be 100% brutally honest with yourself when you think about your situation and answer the questions, and that can be really hard. And then, of course, there’s implementation.
I haven’t really talked to my dad since he dropped me off from our trip to his dad’s funeral, which is maybe poor timing on my part. We had a fight in the car over whether he was allowed to decide whether his children (mostly my little sister) were abused or not so…. I mean, I had justification.
And not being involved in the endless ups and downs of whether he’s breaking up with his girlfriend, whether he’s moving to another province or not, whether he’s talking to his own family or not… it’s honestly so much less stressful. I don’t have to be a sounding board for his ideas about doing therapy on himself with his girlfriend’s help! I don’t have to listen to him share way tmi about my mom! It’s great!
But I think generally my family has far looser family ties than a lot of families. All of the five kids have cut one or both parents off at one point or permanently and I haven’t talked to two of my siblings in years. I know this upsets my parents (I talked to them both for years more than any of my siblings and was the dumping ground for a lot of feelings about it until I made them stop) but I… don’t know. I love some of my siblings but it’s hard to feel the family bonds we’re supposed to have. It’s weird and I’m never sure entirely how to feel about it.
My mother picked a big, mean, groundless fight with me the day before my dad’s funeral. Honestly? I think they do it because they know/think they have a free pass to say what they like because there’s no way you’d upset them (i.e. stick up for yourself) on that day of all days, right? I found myself packing and walking out the door instead. Me and my husband went and checked in to the poshest hotel ever and just slept the whole day, we were totally wrecked, coming up and down to visit while my dad was ill and we’d just started new jobs and I’d had two miscarriages in the 12 months before. I *still* bloody felt guilty of walking out on my mother’s verbal abuse. But it was the beginning of the end, and I’ve been 4 years NC. It’s been so nice.
Super proud of you for standing up for yourself in that situation. Can’t imagine how that guilt felt, but standing firm in the face of it is a super brave action.
My mom lost her shit on me (while on the phone with me and my therapist at the time, no less) a few weeks after my dad/her husband passed away. She was so caught up in her own grief that she couldn’t see past it. She was upset I wasn’t supporting her through her grief the way she wanted. It was like it didn’t occur to her that I’d lost my dad, too.
This, I needed to read this, thank you! I feel like it’s the only thing that explains why my dad asked me about why I have ptsd and if it was his fault at HIS wedding reception, after seating me at the head table. I could not fathom why you’d ask such a painful question at a time like that, but if you want to pressure someone into a dishonest peacemaking answer… (I dodged with one of the Captain’s scripts, thanks CA!)
I was really angry at my niece (even though I know she was just a child, so I tried not to show it) for saying hateful, hurtful things to my daughter each time we were about to leave. We visited from out of state several times a year and this happened every. time. My daughter even as I child had much higher emotional IQ than I do. Once I asked her why she was so excited to see (niece) when she said such hurtful things whenever we leave. I think I was trying to help her not be as emotionally attached, thinking it would help her not feel as hurt as I would have in that situation? Not one of my better moments. I’ll never forget what she said – “Momma, she picks a fight when we leave because it’s hard to say goodbye to someone you love. It’s easier when you’re angry.”
I think that’s a big reason people say hurtful things during high-emotion times like weddings, funerals, holidays. They get upset and hurt because the stakes are high (or because of grieving) and then try to hide from their own pain by getting angry, and they aren’t good enough at managing their anger to keep from inflicting it on others.
I’m not saying this negates what they do or excuses it by any means. I still don’t like (niece) and thankfully don’t have to deal with her grown ass now because divorce, but I will say that my daughter’s compassionate response beat all hell out of my own, not just objectively but also for my own daughter’s peace of mind. She is able to let things go so much more easily than I do. It isn’t a good thing, not to be able to let things go.
Abusers love a good trap. I wouldn’t excuse the actions of an adult using the possible motivations of a child as imagined by another unfamiliar with abuse. I was banned from attending the funeral of a family member I had spent more time than anyone else in the family physically and emotionally caring for over a decade because I said I would rather wear a different black dress than the one I was apparently assigned (in a mild non-combative tone once, without expectation of a fight because I wasn’t aware we were in one). I still don’t know where she’s buried.
Understanding someone’s motivations or having an idea of their internal rewards for acting a way can be helpful, but it doesn’t mean you need to put up with it. Seeing the flaw or gap in them that makes cruelty part of the only way they know to deal with you, can make it easier to acknowledge that the problem is them and not you (and accept that it’s out of your power to just walk on eggshells enough or just be daughterly enough or so on). It makes it harder to just demonize them, but… you don’t have to think a hurricane has something against you personally, to evacuate.
My family is not tight either. There are some actual decent reasons for that and also…I don’t know. I also feel weird about it. But then sometimes I just think why am I putting pressure on myself for this? Do I have a network of people that I can support/support me? Okay, good!
One of the worst but also one of the most fightworthy fights with my mother was when she tried to force Younger Brother (at this time 14 y o) to go see the corpse of Sibling, THE MOMENT WE WERE LEAVING TO GO TO THE FUNERAL PLACE. Brother was very afraid to see Sibling’s body. I don’t regret fighting that fight, even if it involved actual yelling “no, we’re not leaving until you realize that’s fucked up. We’re not forcing Brother to do anything today. Stop it” etc. and I literally blocked the door until it got resolved.
TL;DR: Funerals don’t stop people from doing stupid, strange, or outright mean things. Sometimes you need to fight against it.
Lily, you are a wonderful sibling. One of the worst moments of my mother’s life was when she was forced to see her dad’s corpse at age 5. It haunted her the rest of her life. Doesn’t matter if your brother was 14 or 44, trying to force him to see the body of a sibling is never going to be okay. I am awed by how you were able to protect your younger brother.
Maybe you’re unsure about how you feel about it because of how you think you “should” feel, right? I’m just guessing but in your situation I would think “aren’t I supposed to be feeling guilty or enraged but all I feel is………relief.”
When my Mom died I thought I was supposed to be mired in grief. But I was the parent for my Mom for the latter part of her life and so what I felt for many years was guilt. I had not cared for her well enough to prevent her death.
And it took many years to even figure out how I was feeling! Many of us who grew up in “dysfunctional “ families had to squash our feelings in order to survive. I think growing up this way harms our ability to feel our feelings.
It sounds to me like you did exactly the right thing in your situation. And it’s perfectly normal to be unsure how to feel about all the faaaaaaamily dynamics/issues. Give it time and be open to whatever comes up. Time is the great revealer.
Clearly this is a theme. My four-year estrangement from my father kicked off when I was visiting for his mother’s funeral. There was a huge blow-out which ended with him literally chasing my 30-something brother out of the house yelling “Know your place, boy!” It was… something. My brother actually reconciled with him a few months later, but the immense amount of relief I felt around deciding to go no-contact told me to keep it up.
We did reconcile about a year ago – partly motivated by the fact that I was having a child (motivation for him, not me, for the record!) But he sent a genuine and thorough apology that acknowledged the terribleness he’d been guilty of and showed real signs of change. And, miracle of miracles, he does seem to have changed for the better. I still find him kind of exhausting to be around and prefer when just my mom visits, but he’s not awful anymore.
I’m glad you’re enjoying the peace. I’m sorry about your relationship with your siblings, I have some of the same because of childhood dynamics. We like each other but will never be really close. I wish things were different but at least we can be at peace with some of it.
Please remove if this is not in the spirit of this discussion.
I see a lot of advice for people who need to cut others out of their lives or limit contact to preserve sanity and I’m glad it’s all there.
What if I’m the one who was cut off? When I came out as trans my mother accused me of trying to access male privilege, told me I wasn’t who I said I was, and generally demeaned me and let me know that she knew more about my life than I did. Perfect person to cut out of my life, right? But she beat me to it; she returned a birthday present unopened with a message that said, “I understand from you that is gone. I have to understand that. To me she is irreplaceable.” and hasn’t contacted me again. She has cc’d me on emails to my children (14 and 16 at the time) asking them what they “thought of all this,” but even that was about 2 years ago and nothing since. The thing is, I don’t miss her and yet it still hurts. I’ve gotten through the “wondering what people will think I did that was so horrible my own mother won’t talk to me” phase, but I’m still kind of at a loss. Our relationship was never good, but I still feel like I lost something, even if it was only the opportunity to cut *her* our of *my* life for being a transphobic bigot.
Has anyone else had a similar experience? I’d like to know I’m not alone.
You were going to have to cut her off if this is what she’s like, so while I hope others who have been disowned by bigoted parents weigh in, my rec is to do what you can to connect with community and people who love and support you, DO NOT give her access to you or your children or trust her as far as you can throw her, and tell the story bluntly as, “My mom is a giant bigot who stopped talking to me when I came out, sent hurtful messages to my children, and made the whole thing maximally painful and I don’t know how to feel about it sometimes.” ❤
Thanks for this. That’s pretty much the script I decided on and I’ve got good community. My husband and kids are awesome. My eldest just came out as nonbinary and I’m so happy to be able to give them the support I didn’t get. It’s healing in its way.
Congratulations to your eldest. I’m so glad they have you for a father, and so sorry your mother didn’t give you the love and acceptance you deserve.
Owlish my first thought after reading your comment was, “This is a feature, not a bug.” I hope I don’t sound flippant because what you’re dealing with humongously sucks. You deserve WAY better.
I know transgendered people who were cut off by shitty relatives very early on in their transition. For being to queer or similar total bullshit. The one good thing that comes from this awful situation is you don’t have to listen to transphobic bullshit anymore.
The sad part is you deserve to have a supportive mom, and it’s understandable to mourn this not being the case.
Not flippant! Thanks. I know it’s actually a gift she’s given me by exiting my life and I sill have a hard time letting go of the cultural narrative that mothers are not.supposed.to.be.like.this.
You’re right, mothers are NOT supposed to be like this, and it SUCKS completely that she did this to you. This is definitely the time to mourn the mom-who-could-have-been. You and your children deserve so much better.
Also, there’s a FB group called Stand-In Families International “working together to provide resources, support, and love to the LGBTQIA+ community”, if you want to find “substitute” family members to cheer for you or mourn with you.
All my sympathy and strength to you, and jedi hugs if you want them.
[trans Jedi fistbump] My father also disowned me after I came out as trans. He’d been a horrible father my whole life, and I was secretly hoping and expecting that he’d cut me off when I came out. (Hence why I timed it to happen right *after* I made a cross-country move and would no longer be dependent on him for anything.) Like you, I don’t miss him – but I do miss the father I should’ve had, the one who would’ve been present in my childhood and who would have responded to my coming out by buying me a suit. Probably worse than this, though (TBH I never had that parent-child bond with him at all) was knowing that my mother and sister, who *claimed* to be supportive of my gender, continued maintaining a close relationship with him.
Good on you, supporting your kid, and best of luck to you and your family.
Sorry your dad was like that! It sucks, for sure. I’m so glad you don’t have to depend on him at all! As to your mom and sister, I feel you. I no longer have contact with my mom’s whole side of the family and I kind of wonder why none of them could tell her she was being a horrible human.
Not quite the same thing, but for what it’s worth…I was disowned multiple times in my early 20s, and I found that it never lasted as long as I wanted it to. I had a really strained, terrible relationship with my parents my entire life, and when they disowned me I felt a lot of relief. We had NC/VLC for two decades plus, and I think that asserting the kind of boundaries that I did really made a difference in how they’ve shown up in my life since the rapprochement. It’s never going to be a normal, easy parental/filial relationship…but we are talking, and they treat me with respect, which ten years ago I never thought could happen.
For what it’s worth, you still can cut her out of your life. Block her social media wherever you can currently access it, block her email address from you and your children’s email, block her phone number from your cell, mentally resolve to ‘return to sender’ any mail she might ever send you, frame the situation as “I choose not to have her in my life due to her aggressive transphobia” anytime it comes up, etc.
Just because she did it first doesn’t make your decision and determination any less real! Right now, it sounds like you think of your lack of contact as entirely her decision. In taking these kinds of actions, you would be taking the future of your (lack of) relationship with her out of her hands, and putting it in your own control instead; you’d be shutting her off from the possibility of ever changing her mind. Maybe going through that process would help.
I really like this suggestion. My reasons for cutting my mom off were different, but I still remember the pure relief I felt after I set her calls to go to spam. Owlish, I imagine that if you haven’t blocked her yet, she’s still living in your head, if that makes sense, because she could reach out at any time. You might feel better if you shut that door.
Thanks Amy. I’ve already done most of that and I’m also completely clear on the fact that even if she wanted to talk to me, I don’t want to talk to her.. She doesn’t do social media, thankfully, but her email goes straight to a “stuff I don’t want to look at folder” and my eldest actually completely told her off the last time she tried to contact my children (quite a while before they came out themselves), so that avenue has closed.
“You can’t fire me—I quit!”
It was a joke in “Hello, Dolly!” But it’s a real thing.
Best of everything, Owlish!
if she hadn’t cut you out, what would’ve happened? cos it sounds like she’d have been shitty & transphobic at you until either 1. you cut her out, 2. you went back into the closet for her (fuck that shit), or 3. one of you died.
if we assume you’d have cut her out, the main difference between that and what actually happened is timing. you hadn’t decided to do it yet.
so, probably block her back on any social media, and then do whatever healing steps you’d have taken if you cut her out?
I am so sorry. I can only imagine how hurt you must feel to be rejected for simply being who you are.
But honestly, I think your mantra needs to be “the trash took itself out” – how cool would it be if every dumpster fire in our lives just went and ran right into the dumpster with no help from us?
And even though you didn’t get to kick her out of your life, you will probably get the chance to kick her out of your kids’ lives. Not all shitheels are emotionally stunted and some know when they are about to be dumped. I am guessing she figured it out and had to beat you to the punch to continue to feel in control.
You can still cut her out of your life. She will come crawling back at some point when she needs something from you. At that point, you do not have to let her back in.
My wife was disowned by her mother when she came out as gay. Disowned and thrown out on the street at the age of 17. Guess who came crawling back when she needed help? My wife actually accepted the overture and provided the help, but if I were in her shoes, I wouldn’t. And you don’t have to either.
You’re not alone, mine disowned me twice (and told me that I was disowning *her*) before I decided to keep her on a very very limited contact. Since her death, I have had to refuse contact with her entire side of the family because a) they told her to disown me to force me to detransition (which didn’t work) and b) they actually admitted to knowing about all the child abuse I’d lived through but they were more worried about her feelings than mine when my therapist alerted child services.
My mum would change history if she thought the truth made her look like a less than perfect parent and I know that’s actually not unusual so be prepared for the possibility of her reappearing in your life, claiming to have supported your transition and having no idea what made *you* avoid *her*.
Thank you for this- I totally want a city council run by gay socialist unicorns! Please take my deposit for any open unit, I plan to move in immediately. Captain, this is a great guide!
I’ve done a lot of work as an adult to deal with my parents and family, some in therapy, some on my own. My issues are more that my mom expects me to manage her emotions for her, which started when I was basically born. I’m the oldest and was waaaay too responsible for the younger siblings and treated differently because of it. Parenting the parents and all that jazz, with a heaping helping of extended family BS.
My lingering question is how to deal with a well-meaning spouse who doesn’t get the dynamics, generally assumes everyone is reasonable and nice, and therefore gets me into stuff I don’t want to deal with. I know it’s because his family is different(ly dysfunctional), but it’s taken years for me to get to place where things are generally okay and the extended family stuff is attend at your own risk, but just explaining stuff to him doesn’t work…. probably because he didn’t grow up with them and they seeeeem soooo niiiiiiice. On one hand, yay for nice people who nice, on the other hand, dude it’s been 10 years.
Your husband doesn’t have to “get it” to 1) accept your word for it without trying to change your mind or fix it for you 2) back your play when it comes to your family. So maybe try explaining less and instructing more – “I’m planning to skip x family event.” “Please check with me before you commit us to family things.”
Or even ket him ho himself, if he’s committed to going. He committed himself, not both of you?
Oy. Let him go himself.
Maybe this is a situation where you do not explain so much as you tell. Or the next time he is asking “Why?” or “Why not?” just say “because I am your beloved life partner and this is what I need right now”. 🙂
Hey, just want to say that your partner should absolutely have your back with this, and I will cosign Jayne 100% on some version of “This is what I need, I know you don’t see it the way I do but there’s a lot of history that you haven’t lived and you need to trust my take.”
My husband is a wonderful, supportive partner who comes from a wonderful, supportive family. My father is…not that way. Our relationship was in a pretty rough spot when my husband and I started dating, then settled down for a few years with the help of lots of boundary-setting and my dad experiencing the consequences of crossing the line a few times. So at the beginning, my husband was aware that things weren’t great between my dad and me, but we weren’t quite close enough for me to be dumping all my daddy issues in his lap, either. And I know, for the 3-ish years where things were mostly stable, that sometimes he didn’t quite GET, on a visceral level, why things my dad said or did would hit me the way they did. And he definitely made a few comments along the lines of “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.”
But he was always respectful that I got to set my own boundaries with my dad. And after a few blunt conversations about how he didn’t have the context and the history, he quit it with the comments. So cheekycupcake, even if your spouse doesn’t get the dynamics of your relationship, it is okay to expect that they will support you in drawing the lines or setting the boundaries that you need.
The finale to my story is that things with my dad completely disintegrated in 2018. Like, total collapse. Involving lawyers. And my husband finally got to see, firsthand, exactly why my relationship with my dad was so fraught. His actions (see: lawyers) were so blatant that there was no “he didn’t mean it that way” interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, it sucks that I now know how to hire a lawyer and came out several thousand dollars poorer in legal fees. But my dad has always been a master at tiptoeing along the line of plausible deniability, and behaving just well enough that I was always dancing to the tune of “if only I could find the right way to explain it.”
But it turns out that getting actually sued by your actual father for your actual dollars can have an amazing outcome: freeing you from any expectation that you ever need to give one SINGLE fuck about them for the rest of your life. I haven’t spoken to him since July 2018 (not even when he found my work number! not even when he gatecrashed my wedding!) and while I will always acknowledge the wonderful things he did bring into my life…my life is currently better without him in it.
Wow @Oregon Hill that is a wretched thing for your father to do and also sounds so clarifying and freeing. Congratulations to you on getting free.
YES, what the Captain and Jayne said. I was gaslit as a child, and people telling me my perceptions of the world are wrong is something I am extremely sensitive to. “They seem so nice” means (unless followed by “but I believe you”), “I perceive them as nice, and I am correct about that” . I bet he subconsciously wants you to say some version “you’re right, they really are nice and I’m making a big deal out of nothing.” And then your family is nice and there’s no angst or difficulty, hooray! But that’s not reality.
Nobody likes being wrong. Nobody wants marry into a family that’s difficult. But sometimes you are wrong. Sometimes you do marry into a family that is difficult.
He is your spouse and should have your back. He should believe you when you talk about how the world looks to you.
I had some of that with my spouse when I first stopped communicating with my mother. It wasn’t so much the current state as it was the idea that I might never get back in contact with her – who would take care of her when she was old? Shrug, that sounds like a her problem.
What worked for me was, essentially, having one conversation about it, and then just standing my ground and not litigating it anymore. He took that time to reflect, and he was also exposed to some of her bad behavior (namely a letter she wrote me that he read and I didn’t, I still don’t know what was in it except that when he was done he suggested we burn it, so we did).
I have a similar dynamic with my spouse that included him kind of but not exactly wanting to side WITH my mother on certain stuff. Well, that’s how it felt to me, but in reality we are not having that same fight from when I was 10 anymore and more like, he would make very unhelpful excuses for her bad behavior. If this is a thing with you all, I can tell you that it has helped to point out that where he may have miles of patience for my mother’s nonsense, after a lifetime of dealing with it, I do not. Extra helpful was being able to draw parallels with certain aspects of his relationship to his mom.
Also we live an ocean from my mom so she has very little chance to interfere with us but that’s not everybody.
You don’t really have to get him to understand. His whole job is to believe you and support your decisions…full stop. No trying to change your mind or convince you of anything.
My husband thinks my mom was nice. She was, to him…and pretty much anyone with a penis, my sister and my sister’s children. Males and my sister always came first. That’s not just *me* talking about my sister. More than a few people who know my family have seen it/commented on it/verified it for me over the years. Me and mine? We’ll…we weren’t really even family I guess. I mean I did spend a lot of my youth wishing they would tell me I was adopted because it would explain so much of our inherent (“nature” rather than “nurture”) differences…but nah, the DNA shows I’m related to them.
I told my husband “you met/knew the old, sick, dying Grandma. I knew her as the abusive, neglectful, alcoholic mom who never let me have an emotion, told me what I was thinking, told me she knew me better than myself, and Called me “secretive” because she had proven over and over…and over that she could not be trusted, so I kept my business to myself.
She would make any promise in the moment to get whatever she wanted but 1) never follow through and/or 2) do whatever she wanted anyway if it was in any way beneficial to her no matter what she’d agreed to. She would hand my (grown) sister money hand over fist and then want to “borrow” money from me…yet apparently I was a big financial suck even though I’d been on my own finncially basically since I was 14 years old and literally on my own financially and otherwise since 12:01 AM on my 18th birthday.
True story: This one time I had $1800.00 cash and didn’t want to carry it on me and I had to go to work and had no time to go to the bank. I was at her house and couldn’t find/think of a place to hide it well. My sister’s then 13 year old
thiefso was there so it was a concern. I counted it three times, including once in front of her. I asked her to hold on to it for me until I came back after work. During the time I was gone my sister had been by. When I got my money back it was $1700.00. Apparently I’d counted it wrong.
So I tell this story and others to my husband so that he can understand what she was really like and how I was treated. I raised my son well away from the freak show that is my family. He was raised basically the opposite of how I was because…duh. When he was like 19 he just randomly said to me one day “Hey Mom, I want you to know that I see how they (i.e. the family in general) treat you. I don’t know how you can do anything for Grandma at all because she treats you like shit. I just want you to know that someone sees it.”
But the thing is, even without any stories or examples, explanations…etc., etc., etc. my husband, who was raised by nice (the nicest really), normal people…the kind you see in 1950s family television shows…where love and mutual help abound, is required to accept that I’m the boss of my interaction, or lack thereof with my family.
FWIW it took me a long time to find this voice and resolve, so I get that it isn’t easy. At any rate though your husband isn’t in charge of how you interact, or not with your family and you have no requirements to justify it to him.
Your son sounds amazing and well-raised. What a lovely person, and for you to have parented him that well with your upbringing says a lot of good things about you. (Also… that sounds typical of my mother and sister, which is why I haven’t spoken to them in years. My sister was given a car; mine had died at about that time, and I had to pay $1000 for the car she was given.)
Hi cheekycupcake, I apologize to everyone whose partner becomes a stooge for their toxic family, because I was this kind of partner for a long time.
My husband’s parents were always so nice to me, so supportive. I could look past the occasional casual insult, and maybe they didn’t intend to be mean, Partner, and why not do what they asked? Most of the time it was fine, but I would periodically disappoint my partner because I’d compromise his information diet or agree to a meeting he didn’t want. Partner would try to hide how much that hurt, so the gravitational pull of “Easygoing and Nice” would pull my guard down until I messed up enough that Partner would go “Hey, maybe *don’t* take their side when I’m venting about them?” And I Still Didn’t Get It Because They Were So Nice, but I would put the shield up and try for him. Eventually the befuddlement would eat through the shield again, and I’d mess up, rinse, repeat.
It took me moving in with them to see and understand the issues he was struggling with. And with all the extra time I spent with them, realizing that they treated me MUCH nicer than they did their own son, which I’d been in denial over. The In-Laws are fine and wonderful in low-stakes events and small doses, but during situations that were emotionally charged my feelings were minimized, harshly judged or the topic is completely railroaded into something the MIL was upset with and wanted to talk about more.
(One memorably terrible conversation happened after I had just gotten news a friend died earlier that day, but when I opened up about it to MIL, MIL suddenly wanted to dissect whether my Partner was addicted to videogames. I was blindsided and sort of shut down an hour in so she was just berating me over how terrible he was being, and when I stopped talking she took that as confirmation she was right which worked her up into a self-righteous panic). My husband hates that I’ve gone through that, but he’s also so fricking relieved that I’m finally a reliable ally lol.
So…I dunno, your spouse needs to believe you, but it can be hard to remember to keep that shield up over time, and pleasant, innocuous interactions can bring it down if he is used to taking people at face value. Pep talks before gatherings might help? Maybe next time your spouse gets himself into something, let him get to feel the consequences, unfiltered by you? It sounds awful but I had to get burned a few times to finally stop stepping on the coals. Ideally, it wouldn’t take that, but some toxic families are good at hitting the right ratio of nice-to-WTF to rope in people who want to be able to forgive and forget.
Thank you everyone for the comments and support! I am sad to hear that so many people have had similar issues, but it is super helpful to think about how my own propensity toward explaining stuff away and not just saying “here’s how it is!” is probably really contributing to this. I will say that my parents are super nice to my spouse’s face (although I field all kinds of complaints about him when he is not around, surprise, surprise) so I can see why it would be easy to let one’s guard down. Thanks for the thoughtful replies!
Maybe tell him what they say about him when he’s not there? He needs to know they’re only nice to his face.
If you’re going to take this approach, I would suggest making this light on details. Start with just “they’re only nice to you, not about you. When you’re not there, they have a lot of unkind things to say about you.” and maybe “I don’t think they really like you, I think they’re just trying to get you on their side, and make you doubt what I tell them” If and only if he asks, be a bit more specific–but “they complain about your job” rather than repeating detailed criticisms. You don’t need and may not want to relay their barbs against him, just as you don’t need to listen if someone starts telling you all the unkind things [he claims that] someone said about you.
I agree Vicki. If you tell him what they say behind his back unsolicited then he will not be sure they said mean things about him but he will be sure you said mean things to him.
Fuck the intent and go straight for explaining the impact and then enforce boundaries on your spouse. “No – you will not commit to time with my family. I will not be celebrating holiday with them. Please call and tell them.” “I know they seem nice to you but I need you to have my back on this – here’s what that looks like.”
I’ve come to realize that if I have to explain things in just the right way for someone to “get” my feelings, it means they just don’t respect me and my feelings at all. If you are communicating your discomfort to your spouse then he should just fucking respect it and back your play.
Thank you, thank you, thank you Captain! Having these in a list is really helpful. I’d like to add one of yours to the list, which I have read repeatedly over the last year since going no-contact:
#462: When is it time to cut off communication with abusive family.
This community has been such a tremendous comfort since I started this journey of googling “why did they do that?!”
Hey, I think the link for “#1182, #1183, #1184: “Do I have to be friends with my sibling?” or, Advice For Relationships You Don’t Want to Lose But Don’t Want To Work At” is broken.
[cn emotional abuse from sibling]
Relatedly, does anyone have any tips for dealing with having to see an emotionally abusive sibling at family events? My family all think he’s “a bit difficult”, I’ve given up on ever convincing them he’s abusive because they all think it’s just sibling rivalry. (I am 27, I think I can tell the difference between “I want that toy” and “following me laughing at how I don’t have any friends until I cry, and then calling me pathetic for crying”).
We mostly don’t talk and I moved to the other side of the country. I love my family when This Dickhead isn’t around, but when he is he’ll bring up “hilarious” and mostly false stories of things that happened when we were children, and if I try to correct his (very complimentary to him) version of events he’ll laugh about how bad my memory is, to the extent that my entire family have fully bought into the idea that his memory of any given event is probably the correct one.
I am tempted to strategically Fully Lose My Shit if he tries anything at the next family event (this weekend) but I don’t want to cement the dynamic where he’s the rational one? I am normally really good at detatching myself from the situation when someone is being horrible to me and staying icily calm on the outside but he really knows how to get under my skin.
Thanks for the heads up, I fixed that link and added this one: https://captainawkward.com/2018/04/16/1099-my-family-keeps-pressuring-me-to-make-peace-with-my-abusive-brother/ and you might also benefit from this one: https://captainawkward.com/2019/08/08/1222-love-my-family-hate-my-mean-red-pilling-brother-who-is-always-around/ which should cover events/gatherings.
One recurring (successful, I think) strategy is Divide And Conquer – if events when everyone is together are the problem, go in small doses and leave when it gets shitty, but also, don’t cede the territory of Family to your horrible brother, try making plans with just your parents or just one parent or just the pleasant sibling or siblings every now and then, form your own bilateral relationships with individual people based on what feels good and what you have in common that aren’t about him and don’t include him. He’s free to do the same if he wants!
Thank you for the extra links, they look super relevant to me.
I do see other members of my family 1 on 1 fairly often, and my brother almost never, because he tends to go abroad for months at a time without really talking to anyone. It’s probably a couple of years since I’ve even seen or spoken to him! I live a few hours away from most of my family so big family events like this are the main time I get a chance to see a lot of them.
My mum suggested that she invites my brother over for dinner before we go to the party (me and my partner are staying with her), so I am mostly stressed about sitting and eating dinner with him and not many other people there to buffer. I think my plan for the dinner is to just pick my plate up and go eat in another room if he crosses a line, and talk to people after when it’s more small conversations.
Aquaqueer, I’m not speaking from experience here, but here are some things I see in your question:
– You’ve tried to convince the rest of the family that he’s abusive. They’ve been dismissive.
– You’ve tried to correct his stories of your childhood. Your family has bought his version of events.
What I get out of this is that he repeatedly maneuvers you into situations where it looks like your only options are to ‘win’ or to ‘lose’ — to get others to side with you, or to endure seeing them side with him.
You’re not wrong when you don’t want people to accept lies about you — but it puts you in a position where you have a lot riding on something that you have no control over.
Imagine that he was a big, smelly, ill-behaved dog, and he tended to follow you around family events and try to steal your food off your plate. You wouldn’t be looking at the people around you and saying, “This dog is treating me like I’m his food source. You all understand that I’m not his food source, right?” while they laughed and said, “I don’t know, it kind of looks like you’re his food source.” You wouldn’t do that because that would involve elevating a smelly, food-stealing dog’s opinion to be worth as much as yours.
If he were a smelly, food-stealing dog, you’d probably vastly reduce the time you spent around him. If your mom said, “How about we have dinner before the party, just you and me and that smelly, food-stealing dog,” you’d say, “That doesn’t sound so good to me. I’m going to meet some friends for dinner and then go straight to the party from the restaurant, and I’ll look forward to seeing you there.” If, at family gatherings, you usually found that the smelly, food-stealing dog was so very present that he was involving himself in every conversation you had, you’d make sure that you had your own transportation and a place to escape to, and after a little while, you’d say, “OK, I’m gonna go now,” and take off for the cafe or the pool or your hotel or your quiet house. If anybody asked about it later, you could say, “I wasn’t having fun” or “I had some stuff I needed to do,” depending on how much you really wanted to share with that person.
He wants to make everything a competition (with the prize being your peace and your reputation), but you don’t have to participate.
Maybe that script is, “Sounds like a good idea, Mum, you and Dickhead Bro have a nice dinner, partner and I will be at Nando’s, meet you at Aunty’s around 7”? Just because you’re staying there doesn’t mean you have to be there the whole time, I hope.
Hah, I would definitely be happy to walk out of the house and go get nandos if my mum didn’t live fully in the middle of nowhere, probably 10 miles from the nearest nandos! I have decided I can just take my dinner into another room though if needed.
Also a good plan!
Oh yeah, @Drew and @Serin nailed it: You don’t have to meet your mom and brother for dinner. You know it’s going to suck! It’s not cool of her to try to foist him on you when she knows what he’s like when you’re around! Cancel that shit! She can hang out with him if she wants to so bad, without you as buffer! And you don’t have to explain – “Sorry mom, I won’t be able to make dinner after all, will have to meet you at Aunt’s later – enjoy!”
Do you have (or can you arrange to have) your own transportation to the party? Go early and help Aunt set up. Have an early dinner with your partner and go for a walk before the party. Arrange to have dinner with a different family member who you don’t see very often. Tell your mom “You know I don’t like how [brother] treats me, if he’s coming to dinner I will be literally anywhere else” and then follow through even if it means hanging out in your car listening to the radio for a couple hours.
If you absolutely can’t arrange for your own transportation and have to go with your mom after dinner, your dinner plan is probably as good a boundary line as you’re going to get. (Though maybe note which rooms have locking doors, your brother doesn’t sound like the type to respect a clearly set boundary.) Also be prepared to use a bunch of neutral, non-conflict-y boundary phrases: “I don’t want to talk about our childhood,” “please leave me alone,” “that’s a weird thing to say,” “I’m not sure what kind of response you’re hoping for with that,” “So how about that weather!” If he says something relatively obviously mean, raise an eyebrow and let it hang in silence until either he or your mom feels awkward enough about it to change the subject. And if you haven’t done so already, give your partner a heads up that you’ll need extra support for this dinner, and also let them know what you’d like that support to look like (them calling him on mean comments? Backing you up when you say something, e.g. “No I remember [childhood friend] telling this same story, it definitely happened like you’re saying and not how brother is saying”? Inserting topic changes anytime your brother gets on a roll?).
Can you ask him why he is so invested in dredging up crappy events from childhood and insisting that his memory is perfect? Because it seems like a pretty pathetic bullying tactic and it may be best to drop the rope and gray rock the shit out of him.
Brother: tells story where he was the hero and you were dumb.
You: hmmm – yes, my brother was kid-spiderman, hulk and shazam wrapped up in one 10-year-old
It’s also totally cool to just decide you and partner are going to picnic in your room and skip staying with mom if she invites brother over.
My older brother (and only sibling) is abusive, mean and scary. He also still lives at home, which means I run into him more often than I’d like. Fortunately my parents know what an asshole he is, and they’re good about not pressuring me to interact with him, and we’ve never been big into family stuff anyway. But it sucks that he’s going on his tenth year of living at home, unemployed, and being a dick to my parents when they could just…kick him out? And they don’t.
My advice would be to dial way back on events that you attend where you’ll know he’ll be, for now. Schedule some one-on-one time with the relatives you enjoy seeing. For the family event, if skipping it isn’t an option, keep a buffer between you. Don’t sit near each other and don’t engage him in conversation. When my brother tries to start shit with me, I just sort of purse my lips and blink until he’s done, and then go back to whatever I was talking about before he started in. If he asks me direct questions I give him non-answers like ‘fine’ or ‘busy’ or ‘nothing new,’ and I never, ever ask him questions about his life or anything.
This has been a few years and he’s given up trying to bait me because it doesn’t work. and I’ve cut visits short and left events early because of him. Eventually your brother is just going to make such an ass of himself that it’ll just become embarrassing to him.
Thank you for replying! I’m sorry you also have a terrible only sibling, it is not the funnest club to be in.
I very rarely see him at this point as he lives abroad for most of the year, and he mostly isn’t interested in talking to me if there’s enough other people about. I really want to go to the family party this weekend as I don’t get to see most of my cousins otherwise, as we’re all quite spread out geographically.
The main imminent problem is that I’m staying with my mum for the party, and she’s invited him over for dinner. A meal with 6 of us is not enough of a buffer for him to resist being a dick to me, but I’m telling myself I can just leave and eat in a different room if it’s too much. I do like the non-answers and just not replying, I may try those on saturday if I need to.
I am a big proponent of keeping some food in your room – something like protein bars. Then you can be “not hungry” or “have had a big lunch” or “have a headache and want to lie down.” Then you can do something you like in your room while eating bars and avoiding whoever you want. It feels very freeing to me when I don’t have to face mean people to get food.
Another in the… I’m still trying to work myself up to naming the behavior. I know what it is my sister does, but since it’s never been acknowledged… anyway. I’m in the terrible club with you guys.
Not living with them is a huge help, but still sucks because they control (or seem to) the relatives they live with. But I 100% support the keeping food in your room thing. Water, too, if you can. Knowing that, if I really needed to, I had a box of granola bars and a gallon of water under my bed helped loads when I was younger. (Though the number of times I was yelled at by parents who insisted there was no reason to keep food in my room was… a lot, but it was still worth it.)
If you do any laptop or computer stuff regularly, get in the habit of taking it to the local library. Almost every library has both free internet and spaces people can set up, and no one cares what you’re doing on it. Just having a couple hours to breathe without someone looking over your shoulder judging things can help loads, too. And if they try to follow, shushing them because you’re in a library is much more acceptable.
I’m so sorry, aquaqueer. It really sucks, and my situation is more manageable than most because my parents totally get that he’s a douchecanoe and don’t pressure us to interact or have a relationship (my parents both have difficult relationships with their siblings so they get it, and they’re really not big on the ‘but we’re faaaaaaaaaamily’ thing, so I at least don’t have someone trying to make me be the one to keep the peace because it’s easier on them).
That being said! Is there someone at that dinner that you trust and can tell beforehand, hey, I’m having a hard time with Brother’s behavior, this is how I’m dealing with it, you don’t have to like it or understand it right now but I need you to support me.
Have an exit plan – like, literally, keep your purse packed and coat by the door and sit near the door – and leave if you need to. People trying to keep you in the role of peacekeeper, the Nice One, really sucks – and they’re doing it because it’s easier FOR THEM, because standing up to Brother would be harder, so it’s easier to tell you to keep putting up with bad behavior. This has been the dynamic in my family for a long time, because trying to get my Brother to be less of a monster just meant a screaming fight, so our entire family was built around that dynamic, and I’ve noped out of it.
It sucks. I spend less time with my parents than I’d like, but they’re the ones enabling this behavior by letting a mentally ill, angry and abusive person continue to live rent-free in their house year after year, so that’s what they’ve chosen.
This is an important point: they’re not challenging your brother in any way because that would be hard FOR THEM. They’re giving in to his dickery so that they can pretend that everything is cool and normal and non-conflicted.
You have pretty good reason to believe that you will need this escape plan, so why subject yourself to proving it? Maybe you could just *plan* to have dinner in your room prior to the party. You don’t have to explain yourself. Just tell your mom that you’re “not up to” dinner with Bro, but you’ll be ready to leave at 7:30 in time for the party.
My instinct is: The only language your asshole brother speaks is aggression.
Bring a squirt bottle filled with food dye and glitter. Tell him (once) that every time he’s mean to you he gets a squirt. Then squirt him every time he’s mean to you. Squirt him every time he tries to gaslight you.
this is a delightful mental image, i will picture this and giggle to myself if he’s mean to me 😁
I have found with people like this is to say, out loud and in front of all and sundry who my be present… “ok, you win” and then walk away. Give them anything to grab onto and they will be like a dog with a bone. Tell them they win…in the most disinterested and bored way possible really takes the wind out of their sails. **
He tells you that you don’t have any friends? Say some version of “Considering the fact that I don’t really want “friends,” that works out pretty well don’t you think?” Walk away. This does not have to be true at all. I’m just looking for something to say that might make him think your lack of friends is a deliberate choice on your part ergo harassing you about it is pointless.
And keep walking away from him. If you have to walk into the bathroom and lock the door do that just to get a few minutes peace. Do this long enough and eventually his true colors will show to everyone. Ask me how I know…
**Apparently I m full of cliches today…
Hi aquaqueer, I like the sound of your escape plan. It sounds very sensible.
Another thing you could try – another way to take the wind out of his sails – is if he starts telling a story against you, glance at him casually, say “It’s amazing what some people think they remember”, shrug your shoulders at the weirdness of the world, and then turn to your partner and talk about something else altogether. And cue your partner up before hand so they know to catch the conversational ball from you.
Very much appreciated yesterday’s post (and all of it, of course). That… odd space where I am hesitant to call it abuse (not speaking of anyone else, to be clear), but perhaps just… disconnection, especially as a similarly “praised child, hide issues, issues asplode, why did you lie, repeat” that is still part of my thought process was very familiar.
It makes me both happy and sad that I am able to have better relationships with my parents now that I force them to respect my boundaries. What I have found has helped for me is, they clearly want to help but if I let them choose how, it hurts, so I specifically seek them out for certain types of things on which they have some real expertise, and keep the info low on the other stuff. My mom has learned much faster and so I’ve given her more details of my emotional life than I’ve given my dad of late (but not too much). It has worked for me, overall, but I can only speak for myself.
Hail, brother-from-another-mother! I too have had a ton of success seeking them out and channeling helping instincts into topics where they are experts, like, “why is my house doing that weird thing” and “how do I get things, uh, moving after surgery” where their advice is A+++.
Yep. My mom knows law stuff and contracts, my dad knows businessy things, my stepdad knows every direction known to humans… if I have agency, it’s great.
A large but blessedly shrinking “if.”
Directing parental help in a harmless direction is totally what I do. My parents are super keen to help with my new house but I can’t let my near because they have a tendency to take over my life and take decisioins on my behalf and not respect boundaries.
But I had huge succes by asking my dad to make a birdhouse for me. (Which he can do in his own garage, away from me). My dad channeled his roaring need to be valuable and helpful completely in that birdhouse.
Now I’ve got an extremely pretty, super designy, heavily laboured over birdhouse that looks like a million dollars. (And my dad feels seen, I guess)
Yep, for me it’s deliberately neglecting my houseplants before Mom visits. “Oh, they’re just crying out to me!” Here are the plant supplies, Mom; I’ll be cooking in the kitchen free of micromanagement and will let you know when dinner is ready.
I’ve elected out of adult drama, politics, and questions about why I won’t be continuing the family name by becoming the extended family designated child minder. I’ll sit in the basement and play legos or minecraft with the kids for hours and wrangle them to set the table, so long as I don’t have to grit my teeth and watch my mom justify my uncle’s politics, etc.
Child-wrangling on your own terms is a BRILLIANT plan! Go you!
I can’t thank you enough for all the valuable things I’ve learned from you and this community over the years. The work you put in is amazing, and I appreciate it so much.
My late teens/early twenties were all about keeping my head down, hiding in my room, and stashing every spare bit of money I came across in places where my parents couldn’t access it (they had already drained my ‘college savings’ account twice). It took years, but as soon as I had the money for first and last month’s rent, and a helpful buffer to pay rent and buy food (my job didn’t pay great, but it did help), I got an apartment with a friend. I didn’t tell my parents I was looking for an apartment, and I didn’t tell them I was moving until about a week beforehand. That week, there was a boatload of attempts on their part to talk me out of it, to tell me what a bad idea it was, how unsafe it was, etc, etc, etc. They even tried saying that they would need both cars on the day I wanted to move, so I couldn’t move my stuff. Luckily my future roommate brought her car over and helped me load everything in one go. It was shitty, and difficult, and took years of working toward, but it was one of the very best days of my life, when I finally got out of there. Then I had to learn to live like a free, no-longer-abused human being, but that’s a story on its own. Mainly, I just wrote this out to encourage any readers who are striving to get free. You can do it, it will happen, keep going and keep doing whatever you need to do to make it happen.
Living like a free human is amazing, isn’t it? I’m still catching myself jumping when someone yells in a neighboring apartment, or a door elsewhere slams, and I didn’t even know how much I tensed up every time it happened until I didn’t need to anymore.
But I’m still in the same city, in driving distance, and work in a public building she can access, so I don’t feel free yet. But at least now I have a space to BE. And I don’t wonder when she’ll finally hit me so I have an excuse to cut her out of my life completely now. (Often.)
It is a huge relief, yes. Not being micro-managed, or having my every little move and decision ridiculed, and, most of all, not having to tip-toe around my father’s unpredictable, volatile temper. Every day away from that is a blessing. In the beginning, my boundaries required constant maintenance – they were always looking for a way to get their hooks back into me – but over the years my folks have come to realize that the relationship we have now is as much as they are ever going to have from me.
This reminds me of some of the very best and beautiful advice I ever read here or anywhere:
Listen: In the future, there is a small, quiet room that is just yours, where you are safe and you are free. In that room your shoulders will finally start to come down from around your ears. Nobody can come into that room unless you let them. In that clean quiet place, you will work and you will study. You will love and you will heal. I know this is true because I am there with you. We are there together because you saved us. You saved us because you were brave and because you never stopped believing in that room.
Beautiful, and true.
I wonder if the car thing on your moving day was about punishing you for moving out or some magical thinking, like, if you have no way to transport your things on that exact day you will be left with no choice but to stay forever?
I think it was meant as punishment. My mother said: “Well, since you didn’t tell us you planned to move today until the last minute, you can’t expect us to drop our plans for you to move.” She was unclear on what plans, exactly, were requiring them both to take their cars, and (shocker!) my sibling told me later that they didn’t go anywhere after I left that day. Luckily I had expected something like this to happen, and so had arranged ahead of time for my new roommate to help me.
I know this type of stuff is bittersweet but… bless how after living with parents like that you end up being the best planer and the best at seeing things coming. It sucks having had to learn stuff painfully but then again stuff like that is like a super power.
@scrapworks: May I copy your comment over into another board? I have an acquaintance that is going through precisely this struggle.
My mother-in-law is capital D Difficult and a champion boundary-ignorer. She is constantly making comparisons with my family, counting beans about number of visits and how many days spent where. This year, without having spoken to me and my spouse about it previously, she called my parents to try to wrangle an invitation to my side of the family’s Thanksgiving and all future Thanksgivings. My parents (bless them!) deflected with a “that’s not going to work for us this year,” and are fully prepared to shut her down again in the future (and my spouse is on the same page). But I know she’ll try this shit again and it’s just so obnoxious that she would try to arrange future holidays for us and go “over my head” to my mom and dad. We are married, financially independent and on the far side of thirty. We answer to no one but ourselves.
I know how to keep on shutting her down. I think what I need is to know how to stop being so angry, or at least deal with my anger. I hate being treated like a child and having to constantly be on my guard around her. I have ended friendships that made me feel this way — I don’t keep company with anyone else who does this. If it were up to me she’d have been gone long ago, but she’s not my mom and the final say on whether or not our little family can keep engaging is not mine. As long as my spouse is not ready to cut her out, I want to keep supporting him and I know it helps him to have me around when she’s there (I am good at smiling politely and hiding the seething rage). What do you do when you’re so mad and there’s nothing you can do about it?
I think it’s very kind of you to serve as the buffer for your spouse where his difficult mom is concerned, but can I recommend…not?
At least not every time?
At least…take breaks?
Because, selfishly and bluntly, if the only thing that makes it possible for your husband to have a relationship with his mom is your seething, smiling compliance and dancing attendance what if we kicked out that leg of the stool for a while and see how he does on his own?
(link is added to the list, above, thanks!) Like, he can remember her birthday, figure out what healthy communication and boundaries are like, get a therapist for himself, take the kids to visit her and give you a few days to yourself, etc. and decide if it’s worth engaging with her if it means doing it alone. Not every time (spouse-buffers are helpful and necessary at times, it’s noble work!) but…way more than now!
Yeah, that’s a good point. We live a plane flight away and only see them a couple of times a year, to be fair (usually, one time they come to us, one time we go to them), and I think he’d be happy to see that cut down to even fewer visits. It’s more that spouse is an only child and MIL is a very isolated person with a lot of free time on her hands to call and text me and my relatives and cause trouble like this. Part of me wants to know if she’s contacting my relatives and would feel uncomfortable shutting off the information flow, but another part of me maybe thinks that’s the next step? Taking that step into blocking, requesting info shut down from people she calls, and so on feels like an escalation I don’t know I’m ready to make if it doesn’t mean we’re also cutting her off permanently so I don’t have to hear complaints about being ignored. In the meantime I’m just… so mad.
It sounds like your extended family handles her just fine, so, “Eh, MIL is pretty chatty, I don’t answer every request she sends, you don’t have to either” will probably handle a lot of it, they’ll block her or disengage if they need to. If you feel like she’s trying to use extended family as proxies to get access or info to you, you can give them permission to ignore it – “Oh, if she’s asking you about us, trust that she’s already asked us and just didn’t like the answer! You don’t have to do a single thing about it. Thanks!” Also make it really boring, don’t vent about her or discuss her with family and let her take up all the air. ❤ You got this!
If it helps to hear this, the rest of your family are probably not nearly as stressed out by it as you are. Which doesn’t make it okay for her to do! But I have a Difficult mom who likes drunk dialing, e.g., my in-laws or parents of my elementary school classmates, and I’ve spent a lot of time cringing in horror and shame about it. And I’ve finally learned (though internalizing that knowledge is a process) that because she doesn’t have emotional leverage over any of these people, they just roll their eyes and move on, and if they spare a thought for me at all, it’s to feel sorry for me, not to be angry at me for unleashing her on them.
Also seconding the Captain’s suggestion to let your husband experience the full brunt of her personality more often without you there. Because in the moment, your presence can help diffuse and deflect her impact on him, and also because after the fact, your anger and frustration can be a kind of release valve for his own. Let him deal with her and feel his feelings.
ugh, I have an in-law like this and we did end up blocking her on all social media and asking our friends to do the same. She was REALLY UPSET for a while and made sure we knew it, but we rode it out and now she has mostly accepted that she can contact us by texting but not follow all our social media accounts and our friends social media accounts!
I could have written this. A couple of years ago I gave up on the buffering, admitted to me and my husband that I would like to never meet her again and am now in the background. My husband is struggling with his mom, but then, he always was. I have a lot of guilt but am working on letting it go. She chooses her behavior and I spent a decade trying to make this work. It doesn’t.
“My husband is struggling with his mom, but then, he always was.”
Sometimes I wonder if the best way to help someone like him is to be the place where his difficult mother isn’t.
Be his sanctuary, his safe place. Where he’s understood, and his struggle is understood and sympathized with, of course. But you are the sympathetic, not his fellow warrior.
I am trying really hard to establish something with my brother, although I don’t know if it is boundaries per se. I have always been the responsible and mature sibling, and now it seems to be something that is used against me in family dynamics. My brother has gone through A LOT in the past few years – dropping out of multiple colleges, multiple instances with arrests, including some brief jail time, no consistent job, and a horrible girlfriend. He also has a huge anger problem. Even through all of this, our family has supported him unconditionally. My parents basically pay for everything. I helped him with job and college applications, searched for places for him to stay, was a listening ear many many times, and even took time off and paid for a flight to see him when he got out of jail. We forgive him when he manages to ruin every family vacation with his drinking or irresponsibility. The problem is I don’t want to forgive him anymore.
The problem is now any time my brother and I fight I am expected to “be the better person” and make things right. My parents now know that it is easier for the responsible and mature sibling to hold all of the emotional labor than try to get my brother to change. And I have swallowed any hurt or anger towards my brother like they ask for the sake of my parents. I don’t want them to deal with anymore drama than they have to. But now I am sick of it. My brother cancelled going on a family trip the day of, argued with me on the phone and then hung up on me, didn’t speak to me after even though I had a horrible illness for weeks, and then was angry with me that I didn’t call him when his probation got cleared (like, yay? what do you want me to say?).
My parents want me to apologize to my brother for not talking to him after his probation cleared – and I am finally standing my ground. I have heard “be the better person” hundreds of times and I just can’t take it anymore. I am made to feel guilty for wanting a simply apology or maybe even some sort of gratitude for all of the support I have given. We are now at a standstill – neither of us are talking to each other and my parents won’t bring it up anymore. I can feel my conviction falling again but I don’t want to let my brother continue to get away with this. I am having a hard time conveying this to my parents. I don’t know how to break this vicious cycle of me being the better person after it has been this way for over 20 years. And soon we will have Thanksgiving. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
I have no advice but I empathise so strongly with your parents wanting to push you into a better relationship with your brother when the problems are coming from him ❤
I’m not sue it’s helpful, but maybe just keep doing what you’re doing. Your brother will never apologize. Accept that as fact and let go of hoping for something different. He has shown you who he is. If your parents bring it up asking you to apologize again…well I personally would say “no” and leave it at that. Of course they will not accept a simple “no” so then you have to pull out “you have my answer, this discussion is over.”
Are you prepared to walk out of Family Holiday Fun Time™ (i.e. Thanksgiving)?
I think that if you can accept that your brother is whatever he is, your parents are enabling him and demanding you do likewise because you are easier to deal with than he is…(but you are allowed to refuse and stick by it), and be willing to walk away even from a family holiday gathering…and hold fast to your resolve, thy will eventually get the fuck over it and accept the “new” you.
My dearest msl I would like to give you a hug. I found a support group is invaluable to change a habit 20 years in the making. I go to Alanon.
Sorry I don’t know how to quote properly “We are now at a standstill – neither of us are talking to each other and my parents won’t bring it up anymore.”
This sounds about as close to a win as you are going to get if your brother is not bugging you and your parents are not bugging you about it anymore.
It sucks that your brother refuses to grow up. It sucks that your parents would rather pressure you to put up with his shit than pressure him to change. You don’t have to forgive him when he refuses to apoligise or even if he does apoligise or be the bigger person he’s an adult and not your child. All I would suggest is figure out what your boundaries will be in the future with your brother and your parents when they decide to play brothers advocate to you and how you intend to enforce them.
…I don’t have any advice, I just want you to know you’re not alone. My sister hasn’t actually served jail time–she got the charges dropped and erased from her record after 2 years probation–and her long distance boyfriend is, while a mansplaining know-it-all, mostly a nice guy. Other than that, swap the gender and it could be your brother. And I could be you, complete with helping her out on applications for the jobs she’s never managed to keep and being expected to be the bigger person.
I don’t know how this’ll help actual Thanksgiving, but I’ve held Friendsgiving twice: once when I was in a horrendous apartment with a roommate, and the second time will be in a couple weeks. It’s a not-thanksgiving meal with turkey, mashed potatoes, and as many people as I actually want to interact with crammed into a room with me for a solid day of making fun of youtube videos and playing silly games and catching up. No one I’m related to knows about it. Having a ‘real’ celebration a week or two before helps when there’s also something I just have to get through.
I am so sorry you’re in this situation.
I suspect the “boat rocker” analogy post might be one that you find helpful, as I’ve not seen it linked anywhere here:
(Content: a link to a post in a subreddit that draws parallels between rocking boats, bad behaviour and how the focus is always on getting well behaved people to help steady the boat, rather than getting the problematic people to stop rocking it.)
oh my god, this just took my breath away – it describes my entire childhood and set such a bad precedent for my adult years. Thank you so much for linking this.
Dang. That’s a fantastic analogy!
Wow. Codependency 101. Makes it all so astonishingly clear.
Hey there, I hope other people with more experience with this type of situation will chime in, but one thing I think I can contribute is: remember, the first time you set a boundary is always the hardest. You are changing the pattern of family interaction and both your family members and your own brain are going to push back really really hard against the New Thing. It gets easier over time, as this becomes A Known Thing.
It’s unfortunate (and deeply unfair to you) that your parents have chosen the path of least resistance by putting all the pressure on you to be the bigger person. Consider that maybe, for now, the fact that they aren’t pressuring you anymore is its own victory. Of course you want their support and their blessing, and you’re entitled to it, but it’s possible that it will take them some time to get used to this new situation. They’re going to have to rethink a lot of their past behavior, which is going to be painful and difficult. Some people are flexible enough to do it, others refuse to ever admit they were wrong. I hope your parents are the first type.
Do you have friends or a Team You who can support you? Having a space to vent and validation that you’re doing the right thing can help a lot, I find. A therapist could also be helpful for this, or a support group for relatives of alcoholics (even if your brother isn’t an alcoholic per se, I’m told these groups often deal with codependency issues that might be relevant in your case).
I think the greatest thing I have ever learned from this column is “the peace is already broken”. You can’t keep the peace. The peace isn’t there. Someone else already broke it. They’re just asking you to let it wash all over you, rather than deal with the actual problem. They make the victim responsible.
And in general, there is no need to ever forgive someone who doesn’t think they did anything wrong. All that’s doing is letting that person off the hook. The person’s gonna keep doing it. Forgiving is not gonna help. You’re going to keep getting hurt, and that doesn’t happen in a vacuum: that person is gonna keep hurting you. There’s no justice if you just decide to keep brushing it off. Don’t forgive. You can move on, you can keep going, you can do anything. But don’t let someone off the hook for something they’re just gonna keep doing.
msl, I want to acknowledge your grief here. You’ve spent so long maintaining the status quo with your brother until you didn’t, and now your brother isn’t talking to you (win!) and your parents stopped bringing it up (win!), but no one seems to have acknowledged all the work you put in previously. Be angry – you put in a LOT of work where you didn’t need to, and you’re being subconsciously pressured to do it again while not being acknowledged for the work you did before. (Parents aren’t bringing it up, but reading between the lines, they’re still expecting you to Be The Better Person and Let It Go, By Which We Mean Keep Being a Doormat, We’re Family ™.
If you are able, please think about accessing therapy. I recently was able to do text-based conversations with a counselor for my anger with my mom through my work’s employee and family assistance plan. I still have a lot of work to do with that, but being able to say to a total stranger – I was abandoned my whole life by someone who should have loved me – and have that stranger say “I see you and support you, here are some books to read, and here’s some thinking points” without any judgement was very validating. msl, I see you and I support you. This internet stranger gives you permission to opt out of Thanksgiving entirely (even if you have to go gosh, I’m just soooooo sick, I can’t possibly travel; no one (but us) has to know that the cause of your sickness is Brother’s unwillingness to accept that he’s… not very nice? Like constantly having the kinds of issues he seems to be having is something he has absolutely zero control over? Yeah ok, bad jobs and not meshing well with college life is something that can happen to anyone, but I feel like not doing things that involve being arrested and needing to go through probation and drinking ARE things you have some control over). If you can’t opt out completely, I give you permission to do any combination of: not staying with family (if you go there, get a hotel, drive the 3 hours each way if that’s an option, etc; not let them stay with you for “that doesn’t work for us” reasons), walking out of the event even if its at your house, gosh look at the time, everyone leave. Make it awkward. Your brother and parents have already made it awkward by expecting you to do all of the emotional labour regarding this dynamic, and you don’t have to play along anymore.
The captain has great recommendations above for reading and the archives are invaluable. Please know you did nothing to deserve this treatment of you and I support you doing anything you need to do to change this dynamic.
CW: Threats, self-harm
msl, while some of the details of my brother’s life are different, what is the same in our situations is that “The problem is now any time my brother and I fight I am expected to “be the better person” and make things right.” I am (or was) also the responsible, helping sibling. But I did far more work toward trying to be there for him and help with his problems than he did, and still my brother’s rage was regularly directed at me, including in my late 30s, when he ultimately slapped me, threatened to kill me, and then threatened to suicide by cop (as my sister asked parents if she should call the police)–because I calmly asked him not to disparage me and my studies/profession. He has never apologized nor do I have any evidence to suggest that he is at all sorry. For years, my mom tried to pressure me into reaching out, and “be the better person.” Notably, my mom also had a habit of directing her rage at me, although not quite to the ultimate level that my brother did. I found out later from another family member who tried to convince me to “make up” that my mom was referring to that episode as “a tiff.”
I tried to do a few holidays, including in public places, but I was always making sure I had a clear path to escape, and that was just a truly dreadful way to spend a holiday. I live a day’s flight or a couple day’s drive away now. I only see my parents once every couple of years in public places and we only talk on the phone every few weeks. My brother and I only exchange a funny e-card on our birthdays. It’s been 8 years, and no one is really pressuring me anymore. I also have refused to see another relative during that time for…reasons… Been in weekly-ish therapy for over two years, including for C-PTSD. The nightmares and panic attacks have decreased. I am slowly working through the grief and rage. My parents and brother have their co-dependent household (with heaping sides of contempt!) I am fully aware I can do nothing to make anything there better. My parents do not understand my experience of it all. They want that life more than they want to deal with the reality of it all. It feels to me that my worth to them was mostly to placate and enable them. They felt justified punishing me when I refused, stood up for myself, or stood up for others. In their mind, they love me, and raised me and my life wasn’t as horrible as theirs, don’t you know, so how can I be so….???
I wish I had more hopeful advice than this! But it seems the only way to break a vicious cycle is to stick to the boundaries you choose to set. And then set bigger and bigger boundaries if the pressure from others won’t ease–as big as the boundaries need to be until you don’t feel that constant tug. Let people think and say of you what they are going to say. Take care of yourself. In my job, I now give to others a fraction of the level of caretaking I used to give to my family and get a lot more gratitude I don’t at all expect or need or want really. I’m not exactly ok, but I don’t feel in constant existential danger from my family of origin!
I believe you’re doing all the right things concerning your brother. You’re not speaking to each other. That may be as good as it gets. Your family, however, wants you to be the better person and forgive him. I like the idea of telling them you’ve done exactly that. Then go on not speaking to him. If he should contact you wanting an apology, “Sure, I forgive you. Now I’ve got to get off the phone. Bye!” Repeat as necessary. Better yet, repeat at regular one-month intervals. If he should fuck up at family get-togethers in ways that damage you, “Gotta run!” and leave. If your parents should argue that you haven’t forgiven him, “What an odd thing to say. Of course, I’ve forgiven him.” This goes for Thanksgiving. Middle of the green bean casserole, Brother says hateful awful things or even begins drunkenly sloshing into his wine, “Oh dear, I have to leave” and do.
Here’s the thing. By enabling your brother, your family is hurting him. They’re being the mean ones. By refusing to put up with his shit, you’re doing the kindest thing. It takes a while for it to get to the point where believing that is part of your breathing process, but it’s true. Once you believe it as part of the breathing process, a whole lot gets easier.
By holding a hard stance with your family, you’re helping them too. That IS being the better person. Insisting that all is forgiven makes sense. You HAVE forgiven him for past wrongs. You’re just not putting up with present and future ones. They’re the ones that matter at this point. Go for it.
Suggested script after refusing to apologize again: “I am the better person. This is what that looks like, now.”
The good captain often suggests “try channeling it into a weekly phone call” and I want to add that weekly may be way too much contact, and that’s okay. Maybe what works for you is “first Saturday of the month” or “the equinox” or “their birthday” or “when there’s a new British Prime Minister” (perhaps not that, if you’re trying to limit contact, she says dryly). Figure out what’s a sustainable, survivable schedule for you.
Definitely don’t choose “When there’s a new Australian Prime Minister” if limiting contact is your goal. 😉
This Australian snorfled.
Awesome addition. In this economy (!!) I barely get to see friends once a week, I wouldn’t schedule a call for someone who isn’t even nice to me that often.
I’ve got a dad/stepmom who claim to be supportive of my trans son (their grandchild), but they are SO VERY not. They couch everything in terms of their life experience and their church. So I’ve just slowly let the rope drop and have them on strict information diet. My stepmom, who came into my life when I was already a grown-ass woman, keeps trying to push the boundaries and engages in various tantrums for attention. My dad refuses to do any emotional work.
Just sigh. Thankful for my son, husband, and daughter though.
Anyone have experience with trying to keep in touch with siblings who are still reliant on a family member you’ve gone no-contact with? I’ve been divorced from my mom for almost a year and a half, and it’s been both the best and hardest thing I’ve ever done. Best because my real healing has finally started, worst because I love my little sisters (10, 12, 17) to death but it takes so much to be able to see them now. I’ve been fortunate to have ways to communicate with them online, and that my dad (married to and living with my mom) will drive them out to me or let me know if he’s taking them to a family gathering without my mom. This is more than I hoped for going into this, and I feel extremely grateful to have had this much. But right now I am reaching a point where it’s so damn tiring to even ask my dad about seeing them again because I’m always worried he’ll say no, anticipating him trying to push me to reconcile with my mom, wishing he would put in more effort to reach out to me instead of me always reaching out to him? And at this point I find myself really wanting to let myself take a break from the exhausting effort, but also feeling so sad and guilty about the thought of letting my little sisters down, when I know how hard life is with my mom and I don’t want them going through their childhood as hurt, lonely, and unsupported as I was. I don’t know if there’s really anything that makes this easier, or how common this is? Whether anyone even responds to this, I think this is something I’ve been needing to get off my chest for a while.
Can you ask him/them if you can set up a regularly scheduled thing? If it’s a routine then he would have to be the one to explicitly stop it instead of you having to reach out every time fearing a no?
I really like this idea. It would definitely take some of the pressure off me without meaning that in the process I like, never get to see my sisters lol. Thank you for this.
Oh, geez, that sounds like a really tough situation for you.
It sounds like your siblings are getting to ages where they might have some increasing independence about where they go when, and who they talk to – depending on the family, of course. Would it be at all feasible to make plans with them directly to (at least sometimes) see them outside their home, or talk with them on the phone, or video-chat, and that kind of thing?
I don’t know how common it is – probably more than we’d wish. My personal experience isn’t the same but is maybe analogous: I have children who live with their other parent now and see them every 1-2 weeks; they’re not old enough yet to set their own schedules, or to have their own phones.
I’d also suggest that while it’s totally understandable – and admirable – that you want to help your siblings have an easier time than you did – it’s also probably *not entirely in your power* and *definitely* not your “responsibility”. When your parents aren’t providing the kind of support their children need, it’s not reasonable to expect the children to step up and do it themselves. (Though that also definitely happens more than we would wish.)
We do have video chats and gaming sessions! And the oldest of the three might be able to help me make in-person arrangements without going through my dad. I’ve had that idea on my mind for a while, but it’s another one of those things where I get stuck because of all my fears about it. I think part of me is scared that if I ask for too much, somehow this whole delicate structure will crumble and I just won’t be able to see them? I keep waiting for the day I hear that my mom’s decided not to let them see me because I’m such a terrible person for being gay and not participating in her awful family dynamics anymore.
Thank you for the reminder about where the responsibility lies. ❤ Trying to show them this support is something I definitely undertake lovingly and willingly – but I think it would be smart for me to tune in a little more to how much is healthy or possible for me. It’s easy to make an exception in my head for my usual practice of honoring my own needs first because I know they need somebody, but there’s only ever been so much I can do when my mom’s concerned.
It’s also worth considering that when your siblings get old enough, you being on the outside gives them someone to help them get out too, and the knowledge that it can be done. You gotta put your own oxygen mask first, and it sounds like you have done that, but you also have to keep the oxygen mask on your face until the emergency is over. And the emergency may not be over until your mum is dead.
“you also have to keep the oxygen mask on your face until the emergency is over.” Thank you for this. ❤ That's really validating.
I like aquaqueer’s answer. It might also help if you could try to figure out what trying to reach out to you would look like and asking if he could do that. Another thing is I don’t know for sure what the hard parts are but it sounds like its navigating dad but if you could take a break from just those for a while.
I think the challenge comes in not completely understanding how far my dad’s willing to go to accommodate me – and worrying that if I hit some sort of unspoken boundary he or my mom wants, I’ll jeopardize what I have now. I think you’re right that at least a short break from navigating dad might be in order. At least long enough to figure out more about what I feel and need.
Does the seventeen year old have a license and access to a car? You might be able to arrange visits that way.
She does, but that sort of falls under me not being quite certain how much is too much to ask of my parents. She’s not in a position where she can freely come and go, so then there’s the potential that even if I try to arrange just with her, my parents (through my dad) will go “Why are you trying to schedule around us?” or… you know, something. Every new step to keep these relationships is kinda like a roll of the dice, knowing how my family typically operates. 😦
No advice as I have no younger siblings, but I did want to say you have no reason to feel guilty. You’re being an incredible role model and resource for them, and you can show them through your life that it’s possible to live freely and happily outside your mom’s control. Jedi hugs.
That was my thought when I read the comment. Even if, in their day-to-day lives, the siblings feel under siege from your mother and not-helped by your father, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They have more than a nebulous ‘maybe someday, once I’m out of this house, things can be better’ to cling to; they have a living breathing example of the Captain’s small quiet room to show them that their suffering has an end date. (Plus someone who can give them practical support and advice when the time comes.)
Thank you, anon and Emma9 both. ❤
Dad in deliberate denial is a tough one and what I do (and honestly what he’s done from time to time) is ban all discussion of mom. He used to do it bc he didn’t want to hear about abuse bc if he listened he’d have to cut one of us off and odds are it’d be me, and her abuse is all I’d talk about if she came up as a topic. Now it’s me banning it bc I don’t want to hear her agenda from him. I know he is afraid of her anger and he pays a price to interact w me wo her as it is. So I understand why he pushes her shit. But I don’t have to hear it and neither do you. Simple rule. If he doesn’t like it start talking about the abuse and only the abuse if she comes up as a topic and watch him agree w you 100% that mom doesn’t get talked about anymore.
My main issue is how to deal with the guilt. I successfully cut off a parent, but was forced to un-cut them off when they became extremely sick, and moved in with my other parent. I still visit fairly often, but interacting with this person gives me extreme stress and is really taking a toll on my health. I know the caretaking parent thinks I don’t do enough, and am not supportive enough, and haven’t done enough to reconcile with this person who is dying. I appreciate that the caretaking of a shitty person is a very hard and thankless task. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. Even looking this person in the face makes me feel sick. But I feel incredibly guilty about the whole situation. Ugh.
I try to observe my guilt as a flag, a little reminder that despite all the abuse I suffered, I have always been kind, even as a kid. Now I an an adult, my job is to direct that kindness in directions that are safe, I spend my kindness on my self and the relatives I am safe around. This means abusive parent will not get that kindness, and I will feel guilty, because my natural inclination was to tend to his needs. But my abuser was an adult who chose to abuse me and so he forfeits that kindness now. My mental wellbeing is a him or me deal – and I choose me.
When guilt pops up, so does anger that he spoiled our family and chose to abuse so I couldn’t be my kind self and be safe with him. Sadness pops up, because if kindness now could wash away the past, I’d be right there tending to him. But the damage isn’t mine to clear up, and trying only hurts me. Guilt is a reminder that living by my values is where healing is.
This made me a bit weepy. Thank you.
♡ sending jedi hugs if you want them.
Wow, that’s a beautiful way of looking at it! Thanks for the inspiration to do something positive with my guilt!
I am sure you will do wonderful things, stay true to you.
The thing to keep in mind about this too, is that it is in fact possible, unless the abuser is in a coma, for them (not you!) to make it right. Not to fix it, not to undo the harm, but to make it right. At least to try. It’s the kind of thing people typically want to do when they’re dying. I would honestly accept so much less than what I think an objective observer would require in the form of self awareness, listening and apology that it wouldn’t even be particularly hard for them to do it. But they don’t, you know? And that’s a choice they’re making. That they know they’re making.
If they fully understood the damage – if they stopped the abusive behavior – if they said so… I would accept a pittance. I would accept a crust. With profound gratitude, if it were genuine. Because that would be a kindness shown to me, freely given.
Then I could show kindness back. But not until then. I will not wait on a resolution that the past has taught me will never come.
I have not faced this exact situation yet. I do not know what I will do when it comes. If they really cared about me though, they would not ask it of me. And so I don’t think I will feel much guilt, no matter how hard they will try to impose it on me. Everything in the meantime is practice.
Yeah, the abuser does have a choice, and what they choose can make a difference in the impact of their behavior.
I actually went through something very like this with my dad. I had divorced my parents a decade before, but I re-contacted my dad (because the Universe gave me a Heavy Clue that I should). In our last conversation, he asked if I thought there had been any favoritism in the way my parents treated my brother versus me. The question caught me so off-guard that I stammered the obligatory, “no, yeah, uh, it’s all fine, it’s fine….”
But thinking about it later, yeah, there damn well was favoritism, all the way down the Fing line, and it did me serious, measurable, life-long damage, that I’m still coping with now fourty-sixty years later.
The weird thing was: his display of even that much limited awareness was enough to heal my relationship with him. (Well, that, and the fact that he died a few months later, so he couldn’t do me any further damage.) I actually now feel rather fondly towards him, and regret not having the opportunity to get to know him as an adult.
My mom, on the other hand, would never cop to her part in the damage I took, and to this day I revile her memory.
My abusive parent passed away suddenly two months ago and the feelz associated with that are immense. The guilt feeling has been strong recently. I’ve read your comment at least 6 times and I wanted to say thank you for naming the feeling, dissecting it, and helping make clear that my guilt is healing.
I am sorry that all the feelz are back and I am glad it helped ♡
Any other children of immigrants/an immigrant parent out there? I feel like my parents did the whole “sacrifice and become super jaded and focused on survival in order to give their kids a better life” thing and they succeeded. And since they succeeded we’ve had such different life experiences to the point that it feels like there is no way for them to understand my view of the world. Their sacrifices helped me but also harmed me (e.g. they didn’t have any time for friends so I didn’t have healthy friendship/community modeled for me as I grew up).
Some other examples where I feel there is a gulf:
– They seem to believe that there’s no way to fix the fucked up systems in the world. I agree that things are really fucked up, but I still have hope/a desire to try? They seem to find this naive/pointless and to be me courting unnecessary danger.
– I’m pretty social justice aware, I believe that racism, sexism, etc are still huge problems and that there is a lot of -ist shit baked into society. They’re anti-racist, sexist, etc, but don’t seem to believe in internalized bias or systemic issues? (Or they think nothing can be done to fix them and it just needs to be survived?)
Anyways, tl;dr I feel like I partially understand why they are the way they are… but I also feel like they’ll never understand why I’m the way I am? It’s because of them that I’ve had the time and resources to invest in therapy and activism and grow into who I am… but because of that I feel alienated from them?
I COMPLETELY relate. Kid of Korean immigrant here.
Huzzah I’m not alone! But also my condolences for being in a similar un-fun situation. Also fwiw, I’m the child of an Italian immigrant.
I feel like I partially understand why they are the way they are… but I also feel like they’ll never understand why I’m the way I am? It’s because of them that I’ve had the time and resources to invest in therapy and activism and grow into who I am… but because of that I feel alienated from them?
Big mood, this, although I’m technically third generation Pin@y on my mom’s side (and our issues are pretty well-documented in the literature).
Two partial recommendations:
Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano, which examines the ways in which middle-class children of working-class parents often lose touch with / feel alienated from their families of origin. I only got a handful of chapters in, but it really explains a lot of the way that, say, my dad seems to resent the education he sacrificed to obtain for me. (Tara Westover’s “Educated” covers similar territory, but in a more personalized way and dealing with a more toxic family environment that’s more fitting for the general theme of this thread.)
Also, Kim’s Convenience, which I just began watching. It has a running theme with this same kind of gap that happens when you’ve been able to move higher in your own personal hierarchy of needs than your parents. The whole show so far is hitting really close to home for me, although the first episode was pretty cringey and I’d recommend skipping it if it didn’t, y’know, establish all the main characters.
Limbo is an excellent book. Really, truly in the spirit of CA and so empathetic to all concerned.
I am a farm kid who left to become a lawyer. I may not be in the same boar, but we are riding out the same storm in the same lake.
There are many types of paths to this disconnect. Immigranrion, rural v urban, religious v not, cishet nuclear family v anything else,conservative v liberal.
One the disconnect occurs, the child is forever stuck in Limbo. Child can’t be part of the family of origin without stifling their true self. This leads to one type of unhappiness. Being openly the true self leads to negative reaction from the family. It can be as simple and subtle as being told you are weird. Essentially the cream of the family. It can be that you are a dissapointment. It can also be you are disowned and told you betrayed the family.
At root, many defined social and familial structures maintain cohesion through control and enforced homogeneity. This is a much easier path than doing the difficult emotional labor required to meet people as individuals.
Humans are lazy, fearful herd animals sometimes. We dress that fear up in our supposed values and even crown it in religion.but it’s still fear.
I can only recommend this: find people who are in the same boat. If you can’t, find those of us in other boats weathering the same storm.
Oh, and pets are wonderful sources of positive brain bonding chemicals. There when humans fail you.
I’m a farm kid who left, got an education, had life experience, etc. So, while I can’t exactly relate, I do understand some things.
My advice is to find people isn’t he same boat as you are. If you can’t find people in the same boat (I.e., child of immigrants), find people in a different boat, but weathering the same storm on the same like in a different boat (i.e., farm kids who left, non-cishet folks with families who reject them, atheist children of religious folk).
Why? You need two things to cope if you aren’t getting them from your family of origin: (1) Understanding and (2) Belonging. You can get understanding from others who are fighting the same fight.
Belonging is often more difficult, but you can find some group, some organization, some “tribe.” Or some purpose. It’s much easier to deal with not having found one’s tribe if one has a purpose in life.
Further, if you aren’t getting enough OxyContin and vasopressin hits from someone, somewhere and you aren’t clinically depressed, I highly recommend getting a pet or finding some way to have interaction with dogs, cats, or your animal or choice. Petting a dog or cat does truly help.
People can’t live without connection. If you can’t get it from another human, a slobbery Labrador or a cute kitten can really, truly help.
I just wanted to thank you for writing about estranged/abusive parents again. It sounds truly difficult to grapple with and I really appreciate that you’re doing this work. My mother has been texting me again, and we had a pleasant conversation that made my heart sing out “This is what you’ve been missing all these years!!” which is just going to make it hurt all the more when she pulls her usual stunts again. Reminding myself why she’s on a low information diet is exactly what I needed right now.
While CA tends to think the “why” of behavior is less important than changing or managing the behavior – and I agree with this for any of the situations that are causing proximate/ongoing misery – I’ve been reading a lot about recent advances in neuropsychology over the past six months, and a lot of what we’re learning about the material structure of the brain and its psychological expressions is relevant to the question of why humans act like humans, and to some extent what we can do about it. For example, the whole “but faaaaaaaaaaamily” impulse is universal to everyone without some kind of brain damage or minority neurotype; it’s a function of some specific structures that nearly all human beings have that are evolved cooperation incentivizers, structures useful for promoting and mediating social behavior in species that must function collectively to survive. We can’t get people to stop FEELING familial tribalism (and other forms of tribalism) – we can’t argue or even coerce people out of their brains working in they manner they evolved to work. That’s simply how humans are, at least until e.g. autism proves to be such a significant functional and survival advantage in our current social context that it becomes the biopsychological norm rather than a divergence from the norm. However, we CAN build societies and ideologies that MITIGATE the problems associated with these kinds of “hard wired” human response patterns instead of exacerbating them.
And this insight can help with harm reduction problem-solving approaches in specific cases, too: for example, it can guide us away from spending energy on getting harmful people to understand us and instead focus on reducing the direct harm, as noted in CA’s post, while also telling us WHY we crave that understanding so much, which can help us deal with THAT impulse in better ways than the maladaptive behavior of clinging to abusive people seeking their love and understanding. (In this example, the need for social recognition of identity and status – validation – is one of those evolved cooperation incentives, to the point that ostracism literally feels like an imminent survival threat – an advantageous impulse in a context where ostracism from the local tribe LITERALLY meant death – which is why people react so strongly to challenges to self-conception and status. When we understand the need that a particular response is trying to address, we can look to more functional ways to address that need, so here we could take a desire to seek validation from an abusive person as a cue that one needs to strengthen one’s social relationships with people who AREN’T abusive so one can meet zir need for social validation without subjecting oneself to ongoing abuse).
Best wishes for everyone coping with contentious family dynamics. My best recommendation on top of the excellent advice in the OP is to makes sure you’re looking to substitute sources for your social needs if you have to enforce limited-/no-contact boundaries. Internet communities like this are good, but nothing beats meatspace interaction for meeting our social needs, so if you’re hurting from a lack of the kind of family relationship you “should” or would like to have, take a day for a Friendsgiving or similar to be with people who love you and treat you well even if you impulse is to withdraw completely from social contact.
This post was interesting to read, thank you. Understanding the source of a behavior doesn’t have to mean condoning or accepting it, but it can be helpful in determining how best to mitigate its impact on you. (And also on the internal side of things, being aware of your own impulses, biases, etc is a useful tool.)
And to be frank, your last bit about connections is a large part of why I *haven’t* dialed back contact with my family. Aside from my mother, none of them are abusive or even really unkind, but I’ve never felt especially…liked or wanted by them. They go through the motions of faaaamily with holiday invitations and whatnot, and it’s mostly pleasant to be around them, but I’ve never felt they had any interest in me as a person beyond that.
But considering that I’ve never been able to find the ‘family of chosen friends’ that’s supposed to be the ideal replacement for your FOO, I swallow the hurt and accept them going through the motions because even that much is better than nothing.
I assume it would be misinterpreting to think that you’re suggesting autistic people don’t find family connections to be as important, but I’m not quite sure what your point about that is.
Thank you for the second and third paragraphs, they speak to me with my desire to find out why I have issues so that I can address them on that basis. I have started to learn that, as you say, increasing connections with others could help, so it’s nice to see that validated.
Welp, I guess I have “some kind of brain damage or minority neurotype” then.
Honestly though, maybe don’t use the word ‘universal’ to describe things that you then immediately admit aren’t, in fact, universal? Unless you think neuro-atypical people actually just don’t count as humans.
yeah that comment feels like a wild generalisation at best and disablist-bordering-on-eugenics at worst
autistic people aren’t some new evolutionary distinct category of humans??
And (at least some) autistic people definitely feel strong family connections, whether that’s genetic family or chosen family.
Johann, this is one of those “post at length on your own blog and maybe link back here” moments we’ve discussed before, especially since you are making assertions about evolutionary biology that I’d prefer YOU had to moderate discussion of. Thank you.
I am the writer of #391
And years of therapy, boundaries, plus store bought brain juice have made my relationship with my mom/moms family acceptable. I don’t go to all the family dinners, I leave early if things get weird, etc.
3.5 years ago my spouse and I brought a third into our family. We had been low key poly for years, but this person felt RIGHT. And became a part of our family. They don’t live with us, which is fine they already had an established home, but they stay every weekend, we do family trips, gifts, etc. We are a Family.
Except when it comes to my family. Especially my maternal family.
They all know about the situation. They don’t like it. They ignore our third as much as possible, not even speaking their name. The exception is my grandmother, the original badass.
The holidays approach and I am done with the pointed table settings for only me and my married spouse, the uncomfortable silence after mentioning our third being at my dads for the holidays (dad btw loves him, which is huge for a man who was cheated on and is very old school), the accusations that I tricked my husband into this.
I finally told my mother to “deal with your siblings because I’m tired of it”. I don’t know if she did.
I know ethical poly and adultery are NOT the same. I know this. But I admit a lot of resentment towards the half of my family that is perfectly fine with affairs and swapping out husbands week to week, but finds my open and loving family “just not right”.
What do I do?
That sucks, ref. The irony makes it extra gross. I’m thinking you could do almost any of the Cap’s suggestions, including skipping the holidays with them. Sounds like at the very least you need a break from relatives dissing this person you love. It’s not on you to get them to understand, care, or be minimally civil.
I wouldn’t go to any event where the third wasn’t invited and I would leave each and every time your family was disrespected announcing something like, “the structure of our family is not up for debate, we’re going to leave now and see if this goes better another time.” It sounds like you’ve explained and listened and given them time to adjust and now they need to get on board if they want to see you. If your mom wants you at family dinners, she can police them.
This is awesome, and so much to look into, but just letting you know, some of the links don’t work. I’ve had to Google the titles, etc.
Appreciate it. I double-checked all the archive posts just now and found a couple strays and fixed them, thank you and sorry about that!
I actually have a question! Or more accurately, a request for to hear about people’s experiences, if they have them.
I am no-contact with my biological mother, almost 2 years now. It’s working great for me. I have good relationships with my biological dad, my stepmom, my brother (who is in contact with her), and all of the relatives she and I share in common are pretty distant physically and emotionally (and DEEPLY nonconfrontational), thus don’t really present a problem. She and I live in the same city.
The potential new wrinkle is that I am pregnant with my first child. The only decision I’ve made thus far as that we will not tell her about the baby until it’s out. I’m having a reasonably easy pregnancy (knock on wood) so I don’t feel the need to have her as a resource for her experiences, and she isn’t a reliable narrator anyway.
But past the birth, I haven’t really decided to what extent I want to resume contact with her or let her have (supervised) contact with her grandchild. For context sake, her bad behavior is all emotional/psychological/spiritual, no physical or sexual abuse. I don’t know that I want to lean on just hoping she never finds out, with Facebook and various relatives about, that seems implausible and my gut feeling is the prospect of being “found out” at some unknown time is too stressful.
I’m not looking for advice per se, but for people who were low or no contact with a parent and then had children, I’m super curious to hear whatever you might want to share about that experience(s).
My general advise to people with abusive parents re: grandchildren is: don’t let them meet each other, at least not until the children are old enough to independently fight them off if need be. This goes for “only” emotionally abusive people as well. Until your child is old enough to argue successfully against her abusive comments (and only if the child explicitly asks to meet her), don’t let them meet each other. Even if she never gets abusive to the child (and she will), the child will see her being abusive to you and that’s almost as bad.
I know many are like “if it gets bad I’ll just cut the contact again” but once the children have met their grandchildren that’s not as easy as it seems, firstly because a child who asks why they never visit Grandpa will be sadly and probably blame themselves for the disappearing of the Grandparents and secondly, a lot of jurisdictions have grandparental visiting rights once they and the child have known each other.
It’s similar to how to handly a bad biological father of a child: Removing him from yourself and the child before they are born is the easiest way.
I’m NC with my parents, and have an elementary school-aged child. He has not seen my parents since they were 3, and remembers very little about them. He occasionally asks why we don’t spend time with them, and my response (which will have more information as it becomes age-appropriate) is currently, “I told them that they were doing things that hurt me, and they kept doing those things. We don’t spend time with people who do things that hurt us.”
I want to repeat Lily’s answer here: “Even if she never gets abusive to the child (and she will), the child will see her being abusive to you and that’s almost as bad.”
My parents were beginning to make passive aggressive comments to my toddler, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back in our relationship after years of their verbal and emotional abuse towards me. I didn’t want my child to experience anything beyond that, or have memories of watching me be abused by them. You don’t owe your mother a relationship with your child, especially if she isn’t safe enough for you (an adult) to have a relationship with.
Oops, *since he was 3
This was me. I decided to allow my children limited contact with my alcoholic dad. We would see him a few times a year for time-limited events (birthday party, trip to the zoo). Under no circumstances would they be in his car or would he babysit. It worked great (until it didn’t). My kids love Grandpa. Unfortunately he’s back on his bullshit and now he’s the one not talking to me, rather than the other way around. I don’t know what, if anything, to tell the kids. But I don’t regret it. I’m glad I allowed them to know his good side.
“Grandpa is sick right now, but hopefully he’ll feel better soon and then we can visit.”
My grandparents were difficult for their son, my father, but one was wonderful, and the other okay for me. I am thankful that I knew the wonderful one. I don’t know what it cost my father.
A small piece of advice – there is a thing called grandparents rights, it varies from state to state, and you might want to look into the laws for your state.
I was about 4 and my sister 6 when my mom went low-contact with her parents which went meant no more unsupervised time with my grandparents. It was weird and confusing. I didn’t understand what had happened. But, everything is confusing when you’re four? It really wasn’t a big deal in the end and my older sister and I adapted pretty quickly. Honestly, I wish we had stayed lower contact.
My mom came down like a ton of bricks if my grandfather said anything to us. It made me feel good to see my mom defend us and taught me that I should “make a scene” if someone was being shitty. But I witnessed him being terrible to other people and felt forced to pretended everything was okay when it wasn’t. It created a situation where he was allowed to abuse some people and I wasn’t supposed to say anything about that. It wasn’t great and did teach me to accept a broken step who wasn’t hurting me specifically. Not great.
I had another set of grandparents that I basically never saw, even though they lived in the same town. Occasionally I would ask why I didn’t see them more often, but it was just always how things were. I never felt I was missing anything.
My mom went NC with her father after he kicked her out on her 18th birthday (also which was soon after her mother/his wife died). It was more a mutual NC but you get the idea.
I met him once in my life as a young teen when he visited our house for I don’t know what reason and my mom just said “this is your grandfather”, I shook his hand and then went back to whatever I was doing. I’ve never really thought about him or ‘miss him’.
I don’t know what advice I really have other than your kid will follow whatever attitude you have about the situation. As a kid the few times he was mentioned I was like “well that’s a crappy thing to do, seems for the best that he’s not around”. Mom never said bad things about him or really ever brought him up, so he was kind of a non-entity in my mind.
Slightly different situation, but my maternal family at some point in my early childhood went NC with my great aunt (who lived two roads from my grandparents in a tiny village and they seem to have managed not to interact for several years??) and I didn’t see her for around a decade, until she suddently popped up at family things again (after her extremely terrible husband died). There is also a maternal cousin who, together with her family, was at some point frozen out of the family (for reasons). Also during my childhood my mum had at least two big friendships ending following arguments with said friends (those friends were women who were often in our house or we were at theirs, we were close with their children etc). There was always an explanation given and it was fine for me.
I know now that the way my mum handles relationships with other people is…not the way I would chose to do it, but what I want to say is that it didn’t cause me any harm. Instead it gave me the knowledge that you do not have to spend time with family if they are terrible to you, which was really powerful (ironically towards my mother).
This is such a difficult thing! I will say that trying to negotiate getting back in contact with your mom while pregnant/with a newborn is definitely a huge amount of stress you do not need at this time!
I had a baby about a year ago, and it did precipitate the end of my 4-year estrangement from my father. Because I was only estranged from him, and still in contact with my mom (who is still married to him), he obviously knew about the pregnancy as soon as she did, which means I didn’t have to decide whether to tell him.
I also want to be clear that I had no intention of ending the no-contact because of the baby. To be honest, even before I had gone no-contact with him, I’d been worried about whether I wanted him to have contact with any children I might have! I definitely knew I’d never leave any child of mine in his care.
But, we did tentatively reconcile before the baby as born, because he actually managed to cough up a real and thorough apology and acknowledgement of the fact that had been abusive (he actually used that word himself!), and promise that he was working on changing. And he does, in fact, seem to have changed. I’m still ready to walk it all back at the first sign of toxicity, but so far so good?
I think you should seriously consider the reasons you’ve gone no-contact with your mother. Just because her abuses weren’t physical or sexual doesn’t mean that exposure to them wouldn’t be harmful to your child. I’d say the stakes of your no-contact are higher now, since choosing to get back in contact doesn’t just endanger you, it also endangers your child. Tread very, very carefully, and put yourself and your baby first at this delicate time!
From a kid’s perspective, I’d say stay NC. Emotional/psychological/spiritual bad behavior is damaging. You don’t have to be stuck in a well in a basement to be in a shitty situation. Both of my grandmothers were crap. I didn’t really benefit from having them in my life and I wish to hell my mother had set some serious boundaries and noped the fuck out of there when those boundaries were inevitably smushed.
I had a similar experience with my mom in terms of abuse, with a side helping of her being in denial/ignoring her mental health issues even after she was institutionalized. She knew about both my pregnancies while I was still pregnant, and I fully endorse your decision to not let her know until after the fact.
With my first pregnancy, I had an emergency c-section at the beginning of my third trimester and Kid1 was in the NICU for 2.5 months. (Kid1 is doing great now 4+ years later!) I didn’t let her visit until 2 weeks after the birth. When she did, she behaved in ways that we’re deeply selfish, ignored my physical and emotional health, and could have endangered Kid1’s health. So when she came up from out of state for a second visit a month later, I told her that she couldn’t come to the NICU. I didn’t have the strength to have an honest conversation (i.e., fight) at the time, so I just told her that we were only letting people have one NICU visit each. I got a little pushback from my dad, but I held firm with TONS of support from my husband.
With Kid2, I told her repeatedly that I would let her know when I was up for visitors. She responded by coming up anyway (the trip takes several hours) the day after I gave birth without telling us she was coming, sick with a virus my dad had brought back from another continent, expecting that we would let her come to the hospital. We did not. In fact, when I felt up to it, Husband and I sent her an email detailing how her behavior around both births made her untrustworthy and informing her that if her behavior didn’t change drastically, she wouldn’t be allowed access to her grandchildren. There was definitely some Extinction Burst behavior that resulted in me going NC for several months. I got a lot of family pressure (mostly my dad and mother’s mother) to reconcile, but I kept reminding them that the problem didn’t start with me and it wasn’t my responsibility to make things better. We eventually reached a detente — I honestly don’t remember how, I just remember it was on my terms.
Now my parents are allowed one physical visit per year and we Skype when I feel like it (about once every 2-3 weeks). When my mother is here, I still have to watch out for my kids’ emotional well-being (e.g., “I’m sorry you want the birthday party to be fun and the 2yo is having a meltdown, but you don’t get to tell them to stop feeling how they’re feeling”). It’s stressful when they come, but I want my kids to have a relationship with my dad and my parents are kind of a package deal. But setting boundaries that *I* wanted early on with the full support of Husband and being willing to go NC have helped enormously. (I think of it as no longer willing to be complicit in being abused because it helps me refocus on what’s good for me and my kids rather than on how other people feel.)
Hope this helps you! Good luck!
MIB, offering you if you want it a virtual fistbump of “survivor of parental denial of mental illness” and one for you and Kid1 from a “former preemie in a reasonably healthy middle-adulthood”.
I was low-contact with my parents before I got pregnant last year, and when I got pregnant I found I dreaded the prospect of telling them, like you do. My spouse and I waited until the halfway point of the pregnancy to tell ANYONE (and even then only the inner circle) because of this, and were extremely private about it even afterward. When I finally told my parents the news over the phone (we live on opposite coasts), at about 5 months pregnant, I tried to confront them about their years of terrible behavior to myself and my spouse, and their complete refusal to have a relationship with their two existing grandkids (my brother’s kids). This was probably ill-advised, but I guess I decided that if I was going to let them into my child’s life, there were going to be ground rules.
It did not go well. Rage and gaslighting on their part, total denial that they’d ever done anything wrong, totally sanguine about continuing to ignore my niece and nephew while claiming to want to know my kid. I cut off contact at that point.
I commented about this in more detail elsewhere in this thread, but they tried to gain access to me again just 6 days after my son was born, and I was an emotional postpartum mess. They sent flying monkeys after me, they mailed me things, they used new email addresses to get around my filters, they stalked my online presence to monitor me (and both used what little they found against me in their emails, AND berated me for not sharing details about my baby online). I held fast, and only contacted them once to tell them to cease. I told the flying monkeys to cease. There hasn’t been new contact since, these 9 months hence (though a couple relatives still float the occasional trial balloon, which I shut down immediately each time).
This is really not the easy road to take, but their behavior has shown me that my instincts were correct. That if I had made the effort to let them have a relationship with my kid, he and I would just end up getting hurt. Plus my brother’s kids, who at 9 and 13 are old enough to know they have grandparents who never see or contact them, would continue to be hurt. At least this way, I might hurt from the lack of contact and the effort involved (plus from mourning the close relationship I never had with my family), but at least my child is protected from these shenanigans. I don’t know what the future holds, or how I’ll handle it when he’s old enough to ask about his grandparents, but I know I won’t lie to him, and I know I won’t expose him to their hurtful behavior.
I don’t know if this helps you at all—only you can know what the right choice for you and your child may be. But I would advise you to trust your instincts. Pregnant-person instincts are a very real, mighty thing, and they will give you a lot of information and insight if you let them. Mine highlighted my parents’ red flags (which I already knew about, but previously overlooked because faaaamily), and they proved so, so right. I hope yours will do the same for you, and point you in the right direction. Wishing you all happiness, and congratulations on the impending arrival of your little one! Jedi hugs.
Thank you! You are by far the most reasonable kind person on the internet talking about boundaries. Learning boundaries is hard! And as a woman in her 60s I’ve learned to much from you. The post about distant daughters really spoke to me and I felt reassured about how I handled my relationship with my Mother especially at the end of her life.
You are doing good work!
“Roads, planes, and phones work both ways.”
As someone with a two-year-old who has only met my brother on my side, but EVERYONE on my husband’s side, ayy-fricking-men. I had almost twenty years of “but we neeeeeeeed a grandchild” (seriously, since I was 17 and it was only half-joking at the time), but now that the child actually exists, they don’t care. I’m incredibly lucky to have a loving, supportive, welcoming set of in-laws.
Also “talk a lot about your childhood as it impacts a present-day situation” hit me like a brick. I do think that therapy might be in my future.
Hi, I’m Mick and I’m estranged from my parents!
Last year, I recorded a podcast episode with my friend, Andy, about being disowned and now estranged. It was really hard! But it was also so good to talk about. Here is a link, if you are interested in listening (recorded before I started using they/them pronouns and going by ‘Mick’).
Trigger Warnings: emotional/verbal/religious abuse, sexism
Any time I post this link I also give a general plug for the podcast, Hard Day Diaries, in which Andy (a stand up comedian) interviews people about the worst/hardest times in their lives and how they got through it. It can be *a lot* and I’m not always in the mood, but it’s also a great way to hear about other peoples’ coping strategies.
Oh my goodness!! That letter! You are so brave Mick, what an amazing story.
Captain, please delete this if it’s too far outside the bounds of the discussion, but does anyone have any advice for what to do when the Difficult Parent is scattered/thoughtless/bad with boundaries, not deliberately cruel? I’m running into a lot of situations with my recently bereaved dad where I don’t think he means any malice, but he’s stepping on some incredibly sore spots. Like:
– Hey dad, you started dating someone new REALLY soon after mom died, and I’m cool with that intellectually but it feels very weird emotionally (I think I handled this conversation with grace in the moment, but they seem to be getting serious and it’s about time to adjust the dial from “I don’t want to hear about this at all” to “I can hear about this a little bit, but I don’t want the level of detail you want to tell me”)
– Hey dad, I know mom was the planner and I know I look and act just like her, but that doesn’t mean I’m Mom 2.0 when it comes to stuff like coordinating family get-togethers, and I don’t have access to mom’s address book. You need to figure out when we’re scattering mom’s ashes and tell ME the details, because I literally do not have the contact information of the people who are supposed to be involved in carrying out her last wishes.
– Hey dad, I don’t call you to inform you every time I sleep with a lady because I’d like some aspects of my sex life to remain a mystery to you, that doesn’t mean it’s ok to go around telling our relatives you’re not sure I’m really bisexual.
– Hey dad, kids grieve differently than spouses, especially when terminal illness/caretaking is involved, so it’s time to stop trying to tell me what my feelings should be/trying to logic me out of sadness.
– Hey dad, grandkids are gonna be a while in coming and they might not be biological, so work out your weird feelings about adopted kids NOW and NOT WITH ME.
Again, I truly do not believe my dad’s being malicious, he just… doesn’t have a filter or a sense of when he’s asking too much of his kids, and I’ve got him on a lowish information diet because there are certain personal details I don’t trust him with.
Hey Manders, what if it doesn’t matter at all whether he’s being malicious or “intentionally cruel”, and all that matters is that he is repeatedly jabbing you in your tender places and you need him to stop? It’s the old intent vs. impact, “I don’t care why you’re stepping on my toe, you need to please stop stepping on my toe” thing. All your scripts sound great to me, as they are! They don’t require “malicious intent” as a prerequisite to being spoken to your dad. They are every bit as appropriate whether he is being oblivious and hapless or consciously cruel – he is stepping on your toe and you’re letting him know “hey, here is my toe, you are stepping on it, ouch, stop.”
In my experience, is easy to come to feel that boundaries are harsh and cruel, a sort of act of aggression, when growing up in families where they are wonky. I wonder if that’s the underlying implicit belief here – boundaries are harsh, a sot of punishing or hurting of your dad; so the only justification for deploying them is as a response to harshness and intentional hurt. What if your articulating these boundaries is actually an act of kindness, generosity, and care? Imagine yourself in his position – if you were unknowingly (un-maliciously) repeatedly hurting someone you love, wouldn’t you be grateful for their telling you about it? By letting him know, you’re giving him the gift of more information about how to be in good relationship with you.
If your dad isn’t trying to hurt you, he will be able to weather the ouchy, ego-bruising moment of hearing this kind of feedback, take it in, and be grateful to know how to stop. If that doesn’t happen, you have more information about his deepest intent, conscious or not. All the Jedi hugs from over here ❤
If you think he really doesn’t understand a boundary, distill it to the bluntest, most straightforward version of it that you possibly can and tell him that. “You are not allowed to question or voice doubt about my sexual orientation, I need you to accept what I’m telling you with no further discussion.” “I’m glad you have Sandra in your life but I’m not ready to get to know her yet, I will ask you about her when I can, please do not bring her up at any time when I do not ask about her.” “Why are you asking me about plans to scatter mom’s ashes? I’m waiting for you to tell me what the plan is, that’s not my wheelhouse.” Don’t worry about being rude or too harsh; you’re keeping things simple, which is better for everyone if he’s genuinely struggling to understand.
If you’ve done this and he keeps it up anyways, consider that there is such a thing as chosen ignorance, wherein people decide to ignore information they don’t like or find inconvenient in favor of doing whatever they want. In this situation, “I didn’t know!” is an excuse; they know, you told them clearly, they chose to ignore it. (A related thing: the person respects the absolute letter of the rules you gave, but refuses to extrapolate them to even the most similar situations, so you get things like “You just said I couldn’t tell relatives you’re not bisexual, you never said I couldn’t tell my FRIENDS that!” This is also a nonsense attempt to find loopholes in clear boundaries.) If you find yourself in this situation, please know that it’s a choice your dad is making, not a benign misunderstanding or a consequence of poor communication on your part. Do whatever you want with that info, but keep it in mind.
My dad is similarly “not trying to be malicious” but also really painfully hard to have a relationship with. It’s been a long process for me to gradually realize that the overemphasis on “trying” is a really horrible feature of families that have bad boundaries and poor emotional intelligence. Does your dad spend a lot of time talking about how hard he’s trying when you draw a boundary? Mine does, and that conversation is driven by an underlying assumption that it’s mean to draw boundaries when people are tryyyying. (I wouldn’t be surprised if your dad, like my dad, thinks other folks just aren’t trying at all. This means he loses a lot of friendships, because other folks are just a-holes.) The conversations around boundaries are super-fraught. How can I ask him to stop interrupting? It’s just so cruel not to recognize how hard he’s trryyying not to interrupt.
It has been helpful to me to stop “asking” for boundaries, and just “act” my boundaries. Dad’s gonna dad, so how much of that can I take before it gets painful? End the conversation five minutes before that point. Visits at his house and phone calls are preferable, because I can just end the conversation and go when things get a little hinky, before they go full-scale funky. I skip the reasons when I actually have to express a boundary verbally. “I’d rather not talk about dating with you, dad.” is a perfectly okay sentence that doesn’t require a “because”. “Becauses” just invite lots of talk about why my because isn’t good enough — none of my reasons could ever outweigh how hard he’s trying and how much he, therefore, needs to step all over my boundaries.
Grieving makes this twice as tough, and I’m sorry. I learned a lot of this after my mother died, and after a painful period of hoping that he’d step up to be the caring, giving parent after my mom was gone. Giving up on that was really painful, like grieving twice, but it’s also made my relationship with my dad a lot better, in a strange way. We can’t have the real emotional connection that comes from talking things through and working things out, but we also aren’t arguing all the time. Don’t underestimate how much grieving makes everything else much tougher, and reach out to the folks who can care for you without being this much work.
Thank you, this was really helpful. My dad’s not the type to complain about how hard he’s trying, he just… doesn’t fully think through what’s going on in other people’s heads, if that makes sense? It genuinely doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that his kids might not be telling him everything about our sex lives, or that we might not want to have biological kids like he did, or that we don’t have information he hasn’t given us.
You’re totally right about grieving, especially about grieving the fact that some of the thoughtful, caring, liberal dad I thought I had was actually mom working behind the scenes. There’s an extra level of hurt when dad doesn’t send me a birthday present because figuring out how to email a gift card is too hard for him, or when he suddenly says something weirdly bigoted I’ve never heard from him before, because I know mom would have been On It.
(I’m also beginning to suspect that dad has some kind of executive function issue that mom was covering for, but again, I’m not Mom 2.0 and booking doctors’ appointments for him is one of those things I’m not going to do. For the record, I don’t think it’s dementia, I would be more pushy if I thought it might be dementia.)
I like animal training methods for this kind of thing. If it works on goldfish…
You talk about something I don’t like that I have clearly told you not to talk about, very possibly minutes before? I will scream at the top of my lungs into the phone/at you/yes even if we are in public, until you stop.
This is usually pretty effective. Also it is fun.
You can warn them you are going to do it in advance but this is optional.
If you’d prefer not to scream there are plenty of other incredibly annoying things you can do. The problem is there are no consequences to the problematic behavior and because of that the person in question is damaging your relationship which obviously they don’t want to do, right? So help them. Assist. Think of it as a demonstration of faith in their ability to improve.
*snicker* I had a coworker who was forever forgetting to close out of a networked software when he was done with it, which then prevented me from using it until I 1) got up, 2) went into his office, 3) closed out the software on his machine and finally 4) came back to my office to use it.
I started taking his mouse and leaving a note when he did that.
The second time that happened, he bugged our boss into getting a second seat on the software license. (We’re quietly ignoring the fact that our boss had completely ignored my complaints about this up until that point.)
Being strategically annoying works. XD
Conversely, make sure you’re reinforcing the *good* behavior. That often has greater benefits faster. 🙂 Source: Behavior Modification class
There’s a really great scene in Team America World police:
“Sarah, you know I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“No, you just didn’t care if you did.”
This is not a two-dimensional course of action. It’s not either “I meant to hurt you” or “I mean you well”. There’s indifference and lack of concern in between.
Your dad might not mean to hurt you, but he’s not actively trying to do right by you either.
Put his actions in three boxes:
(1) Intentional meant to hurt me
(2) Intentionally tried to do the right thing
(3) Was indifferent or didn’t even consider my feelings
A lot of harm in the world is caused by people who are in category 3, And thing that’s enough to be good people.
Being a good, adult human requires us to consider whether our actions meet the Rotary motto “Is it beneficial to all concerned?” Now, often the real world prevents us from truly accomplishing that. Most people never ask the question.
Your dad isn’t mean or malicious, but he’s also not kind or concerned about you.
As someone with some executive function issues, and close friends who’ve shared their troubles with ADHD and ASD-spectrum disorders, I can say it is absolutely not true that people always manage to do things they want to do. No matter how much it matters to them, how sad they are about it, how much of a failure they’re going to feel like, no amount of caring is a guarantee of a person being ABLE to remember and notice and follow through on something.
And if what you need is for them to do the thing, then it’s a serious problem. A chronically late person shouldn’t be key to your getting to work on time.
But sometimes it’s distorting to think about it as a matter of caring, because it turns the person’s failings into a referendum on the relationship. And it might just be a referendum on their personal failings.
The difference is whether they’re trying, and whether they’re apologetic, and whether they’re this bad at the thing all the time or only with you, and whether they cut you the same slack they want.
I’ve found that after somebody loses a longtime spouse, especially if that spouse was the planner/social hostess, their filter goes down too, because one of the “duties” of that spouse was organizing and sorting conversation and contact as well as PTA bake sales and dinner parties.
Your dad’s dikes are basically popping and he wants you to be The Little Dutch Boy. He’s grieving and it may not seem fair, but so are you and this isn’t fair to you either. It isn’t cruelty to tell somebody to stop poking your sore spots, it’s being honest. He’s got to relearn how to talk about emotional and delicate topics and not expect you to take over where your mom left off.
Ooooh feels. I think that I am estranged from my family. That’s what it is when you haven’t talked to them in years, right? I think I’m very strange because I don’t have any of that “but FAAAAMILY” angst. I mean, I did try to maintain relationships with them but when it really wasn’t working and I got tired of, well, everything, I just stopped. No angst. I do have meta-angst, though. Like, SHOULD I feel angst? Everyone else seems to feel angst when in a similar situation. Am I a bad person for being so comfortable just giving up on my family?
But mostly I just realize that my life is MUCH better without them in it and my stress levels stay so much lower without any of them around so… angst or not, I’m better off without them.
I’m the same way. Once I realized my family was a structure not of love but of stress, obligation, criticism, etc, I exchanged my family packfeels for 1. self-preservation 2. devotion to my friends instead. I don’t know that I’m my family packfeels are gone altogether, but at the least I’ve ended up transferring them to a more stable and supportive social unit.
First: No, you aren’t a bad person for not feeling angst about something like this, both because you did nothing wrong and because “you should feel X” is questionable, for *any* value of X.
Your situation might be estrangement, because you haven’t talked to those relatives in years, and want to keep it that way. That feels different from, I have cousins who I stopped seeing when I stopped talking to my father, because our connection was entirely through our parents and grandparents. That’s fine with me, but if one of them called and suggested meeting for lunch, I’d probably say yes. (My father and I were estranged, and I also occasionally wondered if I should be feeling something beyond a disinclination to open any mail he sent me.)
Ding ding ding. This is me. I’m estranged from basically everyone in my family. If my siblings wanted to strike up a relationship I’d consider it, but I’m done with my parents. They were shitty parents at best and abusive at worst and I honestly don’t miss them, but sometimes I’m sad about not having had good parents and sometimes I feel like I’m a bad person for not feeling bad.
What I’m starting to drill into my head though is that maybe I’m just fine doing what I need to do to be happy in my current life.
You’re fine. I decided when I was like, 10, as soon as I could leave I would leave. Then at 18 I left. I didn’t turn back or feel guilty once. I don’t feel bad, I feel free. You don’t have to try to feel anything you don’t actually feel.
I’ll admit that my lack of angst sometimes makes me think, “Was it really that bad if I’m not still upset about it (except for the ongoing ptsd)?” but then I laugh and go yeah, it was.
You are not a bad person. Nothing wrong with wanting to avoid contact with toxic, abusive people who hurt you and make you feel like crap. If they wanted to keep in contact so badly, they could try to become better people. And even then, it would not be wrong for you to deny contact. You are protecting yourself (and anyone else you have a close relationship with) from being treated like garbage. Jedi hugs and major fistbumps of solidarity from a fellow Ok-with-no-contact person.
Not feeling awful about estrangement sounds good to me. I think feeling bad about estrangement from abusive people is like when you are sick, and then start feeling better but you still feel a bit tired and crappy. You are on the mend, but not 100%. But not feeling bad about it anymore is like feeling well again after having something like pneumonia. Actually, I’m thinking of the winters when my asthma is bad and I get bronchitis on top of that. I am sick for months and get used to feeling awful as my new normal. Then, when I am well again, it feels weird to be able to go for a walk or grocery shop or whatever without wheezing and feeling faint. Wow I just realized that I think of my estranged family as a virulent and nasty illness. But maybe they kindof are?
Anyway, you are awesome. We protect ourselves in the ways that work for us and our particular situation. You are doing what you need to do, and that is just fine.
One of the most important things I’ve learned in my Motivation class is “*should* is an indicator that the thing is not something you’ve chosen”. If you “should” do a thing, clearly you’re not, and you have reasons for it, even if you’re not quite sure how to articulate them. It’s a twist on the old “everything happens for a reason”: “there are reasons for behavior”. When you can figure that out, you can work on those reasons if you want to, but you don’t have to.
In your case, I’m seeing “my life is better without them” so angst isn’t a thing. It seems like angst in this situation would be similar to mourning or grief for who you thought they were, but you knew who they were already so it’s not necessary?
The dynamic described yesterday rang to me like a bell, right down to the details. I will forever be the child who had a lot of potential (subtext: who will never amount to anything because she lets things pile up until disaster). I no longer have to deal with my mother’s disappointment as she passed on, but it will forever be a regret of mine that we never got to have a healthy adult relationship. Jedi hugs to anyone who needs them.
Can anyone offer advice on what to do when you suddenly realise you’re probably spending the holidays alone again, and it’s probably going to become your New Normal? I am not… estranged… from my family but dynamics have shifted a lot in the last 12 months.
I spent last year alone at Christmas, somewhat by my own choice. Losing the man who raised me earlier in the year was hard on me and the whole family, so none of us really had planned a Big Family Event. I hadn’t told my family yet that I’d subsequently left my now-ex, did not feel ready to tell them, and really REALLY didn’t know how to explain that I’d actually been in denial about being in an abusive situation for a long time. So I spent the holidays alone. They didn’t know I was single, so didn’t know I’d done that. I enjoyed it actually, in a way. I walked on the beach at dawn on Christmas Day, built an extravagant cheeseboard that sustained me for 4 straight days, had a lot of peaceful solitude and time to reflect on things, and I had time to grieve all the things that had changed for me that year.
But I don’t think I really want that to be how I spend All My Christmases from now until I, I dunno, find myself attached again. For one thing, although I am seeing people I dunno when or IF I’ll want to be that specific kind of attached, and for another I never really enjoyed being tacked onto my ex’s family’s festivities, that were so alien to me and so unlike what I’d grown up with.
But it looks like that’s what’s gonna happen. My nan isn’t hosting this year, because she’s taking her first ever Christmas holiday abroad, and it’s well-earned and well-deserved. My mum lives abroad, and will be running her cafe business on the day for all the lonely expats, and also my ex-stepdad is still hanging around and I don’t want to have to see him. Besides which, the therapy I’ve been doing this year (EMDR! So intense! So exhausting! So Useful!) to help me process my PTSD has kind of resulted in me reevaluating my entire childhood which… apparently was less okay than I’d convinced myself of. So I have been having Complicated Feels about that which I don’t yet feel able to manage without the separation of an ocean between me and my mother.
My best friend and her New! Adorable! Baby! Will be having festivities with her family. All my friends have family they will be spending it with, or will be having their first festivities with their partner’s families as several of them are entering glorious new stages in their dating lives. And while my whole family knows I’m single and living alone now, none of them have got in touch to see how I am or send their love, let alone to invite me to see them for the holidays.
What do I do?
I’ve invited a whole bunch of my closer friends to mine for Yule/the solstice, to have some kind of celebration with the people closest to me. But… what do I do about Christmas, when everyone will be busy with their loved ones and my soliutude will be a bit more isolated than normal? I guess I should start building some new traditions/rituals for myself to make it feel meaningful?
I love that beach walk and cheese board Christmas! I handled my lonely Christmas less gracefully than that. And it’s great that you’ve got some meetups to look forward to around that time.
Are you up for throwing your doors open on Christmas Day to acquaintances who might not be as close to you as your best friend? Sometimes holidays are a good chance to get closer to people who aren’t your BFFs but are in similar circumstances. There are also meetup groups for strangers who are alone on Christmas, if you’re up for that.
Are you up for volunteering? If you want to be around people and really feel like you’re doing the “giving to others” part of the holiday, a lot of nonprofits need help on Christmas Day. Animals still need to be fed and walked in shelters, meals need to be served or delivered, etc.
Do you want to develop a tradition of making this day about you? Maybe this is a time to stock up on home spa products, buy yourself a movie ticket, or do whatever feels special and indulgent.
Ooh now volunteering might be an idea! Or making it a Day For Me. Thank you! (Sorry for the delay, was not expecting this volume of responses and it’s amazing and helpful and I needed a few days to actually absorb it!)
My advice is to take pressure off yourself re: building traditions. Sure, you can do that if you want – but if you don’t feel up to it, or if you don’t have any great ideas, then you can also make slice-n-bake cookies and binge Netflix. (Or whatever easy food&entertainment combo you like.) Removing the “gotta make it special!” obligation really helped me. I officially grant you permission to chill, take care of yourself, and treat Christmas like a regular staycation.
Ritual and traditions are key.
Make a list of the favorite things about the holidays. For example, play your favorite songs full blast. Even the “guilty pleasure” ones. Drink two gallons of egg nog. (Unless, of course, your health prevents it).
Then make a list of 10-20 things that are indulgences you can’t do every day. A five-hour bubble bath while watching Netflix? Do it!
Oooh I like this! Thank you!
Sometimes in my experience (not every time for everyone, of course, but fwiw), what looks like it will be a Lonely First Time Doing Something Alone becomes quite beautiful in actual experience.
I spent a while feeling like I Had to go to movies with friends, even with “friends” I didn’t really like or trust, and when I bought myself one (1) ticket for Avengers: Endgame and went in closet cosplay as Loki and laughed and cried and wildly fidgeted my way through the whole thing, I thought I would be sad but instead I was happy.
I’m not saying that you *will* be happy at Christmas alone, but you may look up in the moment while doing something delightfully random and individual and realize that you are. (I hope this doesn’t sound like pointless optimism, but… as one who doesn’t like change, I’ve found it hopeful.)
Seconding everything that Manders and Elenor Shellstrop have already said. Volunteering is great as is coordinating what a friend of mine calls “Orphan Christmas” at your home or a dim sum place. Can confirm, both are wicked fun.
My contribution is: give this year space to suck a little bit. You’re dealing with some major seismic upheavals in your life already, and The Holidays come with enough baggage they get capitalized. Speaking from experience, building new traditions solo is super damn hard. Fun, rewarding, worth it, but hard. And the first year, or the first three years, can have some profoundly lonely moments sneaking in among the deliberate joy and satisfaction you’re building.
Embrace the suck a little bit. Use it as a guide to building even better new traditions as you go. And before you know it you’ll be so busy welcoming others into your new traditions you won’t notice when the suck completely disappears. Good luck!
Jewish tradition is to have Chinese food and go to a movie (in the USA indian places are also open and far less crowded)
There’s no “like” button on this website but consider your reply liked. I always observed this ancient Jewish tradition until I married a man whose mom loves to go all out for Xmas.
All of these suggestions depend on where you live and your financial/employment position, but some other ideas:
– If you don’t live somewhere cold, go for a hike or drive somewhere naturally beautiful and soak up the scenery.
– Go on a Christmas light drive at night.
– Tell your close friends that you’ll likely be alone on Christmas, and you would be very grateful for a short video or regular call to remind you that people care.
– Christmas day is a cheap and quiet day to fly. Could be a good day to head off on a holiday!
– If you live in a city that is a tourist destination (or are close to some places of interest to tourists), tours will sometimes run on Christmas day.
– Go to the movies.
I did something extravagant last year, which was to go off on a holiday tour that ran over Christmas day. It was perfect. I had new buddies from the tour to hang out with, exciting things to do, and food to eat as the tour was catered for. It was the best day. It’s not something everyone can do or will want to, but it was seriously one of the best Christmases of my life.
You say your family in the country hasn’t invited you to spend Christmas with them yet. Would you want to spend the day with them, if they did?
That’s… a really good question, actually! I don’t know. I want to say yes. My childhood had some fucked up stuff going on in it, but one unambiguously good thing was how close-knit everyone was, and the big family holidays remain one of my completely uncomplicated sources of Happy Childhood Memories. I miss that, and I miss and grieve for the closeness we had before I moved away, and that only seems to have grown since then.
At the same time, I actually have no idea what a christmas would look like with Uncle X and his lot, or Aunt Y and her lot, or All of Us But Not Nan. And I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of care or closeness or concern they’ve shown over the year I’ve had. Last year, when my grandfather (who raised me) passed away, there was a panic amongst them as they realised they’d done such a poor job of keeping in touch with me (I would ocassionally trial a few months of making the effort to contact THEM, every once in a while, before giving up. They never did that in return) that none of them had my phone number any more, so I got the news via facebook. And none of them have asked after me or even acknowledged the split that happened between me and my ex this year.
…Yeah so actually you raise a really good question I think I need to think over carefully. Maybe I’ll bring it up at my next therapy Thing. Thank you!
As someone who had a lot of great family traditions around the holidays as a kid, I can tell you with sadness that as we get older they never stay the same. People pass away, move into assisted living homes, or just become too tired to host 15 people for a week of late nights around the fireplace. The younger generation starts celebrating with partners or at home with their children. And, when you’re 15 a tradition that’s been going on for 7 years is as old as dirt, which is something you can never really get back.
The one piece of comfort I can offer you is solidarity. It isn’t just your family that happens to. It’s everyone. We all get stuck in that place eventually of having to figure out what we are going to build now.
Yes, build your own, new traditions. Do you know anyone who is alone on Christmas as well and would like to be with people? What about checking on Meetup? What about setting up your own Meetup for people like yourself?
Definitely have a backup plan of food to eat, movie rentals to watch, podcasts to listen to. Maybe a home project to do?
Is there a nearby animal shelter that needs people to walk the dogs? Anyone you know who is out of town and needs a pet sitter?
What works for me is that I work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As a nurse in an inpatient hospital unit, I am very needed and appreciated for working these hard to staff days. I am around people, feel needed, and get told that I am special and appreciated for doing this. If your work doesn’t need you, is there somewhere you can volunteer?
I hope you find something that works for you.
One thing I find useful when I’m unwillingly alone on an Important Day is to give myself permission to do whatever I want.
I have a lot of internalized Shoulds, so giving myself permission to do whatever I want means excusing myself from “I should wake up, work out, shower, have breakfast, do some housework…”
It also means excusing myself from “It’s an Important Day! I should create new traditions for myself! I need Important Day Food and an Important Day Activity!”
And it also means excusing myself from “This is a difficult day for me should do Self-Care! I need to figure out the perfect bubble bath and find the perfect indulgent read in the bath book and do a pedicure and find the perfect indulgent food and and and…”
Instead, I can literally do whatever I want moment to moment. If I don’t want to have a shower at any given moment, I don’t have to. If I have a shower and I want to have another shower an hour later, I’m totally allowed. If I don’t feel like eating anything, I don’t have to. If I want to eat cheese but don’t feel like making up a cheese board, I’m totally allowed to take a big bite out of the camembert and put it back into the fridge.
If you would find this kind of approach useful, I hereby give you permission.
Omg, my brain does that too! Self-care and “fun” can so easily turn into chores. I managed to take a break from it today, at least – stayed in bed reading and playing games until like 2pm, then had salad and candy for lunch. 🙂
I understand and appreciate the Captain’s standing advice that the holidays don’t HAVE to be about ‘all the relatives gather in the same place they have for your entire life and eat the same food and observe the same rituals because faaaamily’. It’s very true and I hope it becomes more broadly/culturally accepted as such.
However, I think the flipside to that is that people can feel isolated or even shamed if they DO want that kind of holiday.
The other commenters have given you great suggestions about how to make the day suck as little as possible, and you might find that you don’t feel as lost and lonely as you’re expecting; but if you don’t, it’s okay to grieve for the way things used to be.
This might not be your new normal; your nan might want to get back to hosting next year (if so, could you reach out and offer to help?). Another family member might step up and become the main organizer once the shockwaves settle down. You might try and assess whether you have the physical space/time and emotional energy to host your own family event.
It’s also possible that none of those things will happen, that you won’t see certain family members at the holidays (or maybe at all) anymore. That’s allowed to hurt even if those relationships weren’t the kindest or healthiest.
Hugs if you’d like them.
I want to thank everyone for their responses! And also apologise for not replying sooner. I was not expecting this volume of responses and it’s amazing and helpful and I needed a few days to actually absorb it. I am still absorbing it all, in fact! But seriously, this is all really helpful, I’m going to be doing a lot of thinking and planning around how I’ll make the holidays mine this year.
Thank you for this, Cap – coming at just the right time!
If I can add on to the “how do I know when it’s time to cut a parent off/how do I know it’s Bad Enough to consider estrangement,” as the Captain said, it’s extremely okay if things aren’t fair. At the time I stopped talking to my dad a year and a half ago, I could not have given you a concrete list of reasons why, other than I felt exhausted all the time trying to Perform Being A Good Daughter for him. Now, after… so much therapy… I have more words (he is manipulative; he refuses to acknowledge the hurt he’s caused in my life and the lives of my family; he turns conversations complete around so that we never talk about the hurt he’s caused, only about his own hurt feelings because I brought it up). It’s okay to not be able to write a 10-page defense of your decision; it’s okay to not have a Plan for reconnection, or to know exactly what it is you even want from the estrangement beyond just a goddam break from being expected to Perform every time you talk (which is every day, because that’s what Good Daughters Do).
Just wanting a break is a good enough reason to take one.
This is helpful. I think I’m one of the ones in the Awkward mailbox asking when is it bad enough/am I terrible for not wanting to have a relationship. I’ve already done a year of therapy and did plenty of talking about childhood and parents, I just need to accept it I suppose and decide what to do about it (my weakness!).
It’s really not weakness. We are all told from Day 0 that our parents are our everything, and that they’re all doing what they can for us, and that everything they do is for us (and we should be grateful).
And that’s…just not true, at least not ALWAYS true. And it sounds like it’s not true for you. Whatever your parents did or did not do, they had choices. They may not ADMIT they had choices, but they did. They were adults, you were a baby, a child, a teenager. Now you’re an adult, and you have choices too, INCLUDING allowing yourself to feel all the ways they hurt you.
I suggest you run this by your therapist, but perhaps you can give permission to yourself to just allow yourself to be kind to yourself.
Jedi hugs from another “it wasn’t that bad (AND IT STILL HURT)” (and that “AND IT STILL HURT” is enough).
With Thanksgiving coming up, big ups to everyone about to get the annual guilt trips about passing on family events where your abusers will be. It SUCKS when relatives want to be in denial so badly that they overlook actual bad behavior, but clutch pearls because you refuse to show up and say your lines in the Happy Family Everything’s Fine Show.
I have been no-contact with my abusive mom for several years, and although most other family members agree her behavior is awful and hate being around her, they don’t actually want to deal with it. So every holiday — and now my upcoming wedding — is an opportunity to guilt-trip ME for not wanting to be around her. Something I’ve learned from this blog is that it’s easier to confront and gang up on the Reasonable Person who does not yell or scream or curse, than the Problem Person who does. It’s just easier to make *my feelings* the problem and not 30+ years of cruel, disordered behavior the problem. So me politely declining a Thanksgiving dinner invite rocks their world, but my mom getting drunk and mean every year does not…ya ok.
I have been politely sidestepping the guilt trips for the past few years but I think next year after the wedding is over I’m going to let it RIP: Ok Aunts and Sibling, if you’d rather spend holidays with someone who has historically been really awful to me, that’s YOUR choice. And it hurts. Going forward, please assume that if you continue to present me with the choice of A) being around someone who treats me like garbage, or B) doing anything else, I will continue to choose B every time. If you actually care about seeing me, feel free to invite me to hang any one of the other 363 days of the year! BYE
Ooof. I’ve had periods of cutting off contact with my parents (mostly my dad). I don’t visit at their house because it’s 5+ hours away, in a semi-rural area, and I don’t drive, and my Dad is firmly a ‘his house, his rules’ kinda guy. One of the last times I visited a few years ago he made racist comments as well as suicide (after a family friend’s suicide) and domestic violence jokes (especially painful given his past violence in our family) and became extremely angry and verbally abusive when I asked him to stop.
I skipped last Christmas and my sister, who is an alcoholic, who lives in another state and made the trip to our parents’ place, send me messages pleading with me to change my mind and then got extremely drunk and called me 25+ times at midnight on Christmas Eve. She left some extremely disgusting, slurred, transphobic voicemail messages and asked if my (then) partner (who is transgender) was isolating me from my family. It’s extra ironic because my ex-partner was gorgeous, supportive, loving, and only ever had my back, but I was shielding her from my family’s awfulness, so they didn’t see her much, and didn’t see me much, and put two and two together and got 45. (As a bonus, the one time my ex met my Dad at a work event, he introduced her to people as ‘my roommate’ because apparently we are in the 1950s). I called my sister out on her gross drunken behaviour and took a multi-month break from talking with her.
My parents are visiting her this Christmas and I’ve said I’ll fly in for a few days. I haven’t seen my sister in a few years. I’m not really sure why I said yes (and neither is my therapist). I’m staying at a different location from my parents and my sister thankfully – I got my own AirBNB, which resulted in my 40+-year-old sister literally whining ‘noooooooooooOOoooo cancel it’ to me on the phone. An actual whining noise, like a puppy. I’m hoping for a few nice interactions and if anyone sucks (likely) I’ll peace out and try again the next day, maybe, and go explore a new city on my own. I think a reason why I said yes is because it’s been a while since I tried with them much, plus I feel like I just expect and need less from them. If we can manage some nice lunches, cool. If we can’t, OK, I’ll just remove myself from the situation and we can go back to the odd phone call etc.
The latest development family-wise is that my Dad sent me a pretty big chunk of money alongside a really weird email that he signed off on as ‘The Bank of Dad’ talking about how he’d lent my sister and brother money and was going to give me the same money and cancel everyone’s outstanding loans. This was after I was offered some money, said no, and was then pressured to take it. The whole money thing made me wildly uncomfortable, and the language mirrored the way he used to talk about ‘being the family’s ATM’ and how he was holding us all up because we were all ‘useless’. I sent all the money back with a nice email thanking them for the thoughtfulness but saying I was fine money-wise. My Mum cried to me on the phone about how they were upset and they wanted me to have an easier time financially than they did and to please re-think. So far I’m not touching the money with a 10-foot pole, although a part of me is tempted and then to just use the money for an actual holiday, plus more therapy, but it’s not worth it.
Weirdly, my family dynamic and ability to cope is all HEAPS better than it used to be – not least because of a fuck tonne of therapy and time away. Not perfect, not comfortable, but they used to make me cry and hurt and question myself all the time, whereas now I know they’re just dysfunctional and I take it less to heart about anything *I’m* doing to deserve it. I’m cautiously optimistic that Christmas won’t be Absolutely Fucking Terrible but I feel I’ve got the emotional skills to handle it and bounce back just fine if it is. We’ll see.
I am not sure I would have been able to return the money, so kudos to you for drawing that boundary. (OTOH, since it sounds like the money came with a two-pronged “greedy if you do, ungrateful if you don’t” set of strings attached, probably better the one that can’t retroactively turn into a defaulted loan.)
Hoping your Christmas is pleasant and Only Somewhat Fucking Terrible.
Thanks for your kind words Drew 🙂
I definitely recognise my relative privilege to literally be able to afford to refuse the money. I can’t say it was painless sending it back (I certainly thought about ways in which it could help) but you’re right about the strings attached.
Thank you so much for all of your posts on this topic. They have been so helpful to me. And Christmases have been so much less stressful not having to tiptoe around.
Resource: as a survivor of incest childhood sexual abuse, the idea of relational repair (that good, safe relationships can heal trauma) has helped me in lots of ways. This talk by Karen Triesman is short, and isn’t graphic, but really helped me see that choosing healthy friendships and relationships as an adult was part of healing, along with therapy.
Thank you for posting that. I think this doesnt occur to healthy people because they don’t know what it’s like to not have this, but also it doesn’t occur to those who haven’t had this because they don’t know it’s possible. Therapeutic models always seem to concentrate on what you can do as an individual and don’t give credit to how much other people can do for us that frankly isn’t possible alone. That doesn’t mean that those without others can’t heal, it just means that once you’re able to develop even just one healthy relationship the amount of healing that will provide just by itself is so immense as to be unimaginable.
So a year ago I had The Big Fight with my mum, the one where I told her why I didn’t trust her, and walked her through all of the reasons for that. I was as careful as I could to say that I always knew she loved us, and that looking back I could see how much of it seemed from her stress and isolation at the time.
She refused to believe me and accused me of having false memory syndrome etc.
I managed to hold steady for about six weeks, and in the mean time she got confirmation from my siblings, and did eventually walk it back and apologise. She said as part of this that she would go through it all with her therapist, who she trusted to hold her accountable.
So now part of me would like to ask her where she’s at with this a year later. Partly because I still feel hurt and want her to have to be accountable to me for once; partly because according to my sister her therapist is actually an unqualified person from her religious community who has diagnosed her by waving crystals at her. But would it actually do any good, or would I just be in for another six week row and it’s better to keep the peace?
She’s my dad’s wife and my niblings’ grandmother so I won’t just stop seeing her.
If you ask the question, are you ready for the (likely) “my therapist and her magic crystals said that I’m totally forgiven and also you owe me an apology for making me think bad thoughts” answer? Or the also likely “I went a few times but therapy is for people with problems and maybe YOU should try it, hmm?”
Me, I’d be tempted to let things lie with her previous apology unless she brought it up, but she’s your mum, not mine. Best of luck and all the Jedi hugs, regardless.
Katkat, part of a functional apology is *taking steps so that the poor choice won’t happen again*.
Do you have any concrete, independent evidence that your mum has developed new habits (of thinking, of speaking, of acting) to replace the problem behavior?
Not just “I admit that I was untrustworthy, and I regret that”, but doing things that are in fact trustworthy in the exact way she previously was NOT trustworthy? Is she keeping commitments even when they aren’t fun or convenient? Is she keeping silent/changing the subject when previously she would have criticized or discounted or demeaned? Is she giving your siblings accurate expectations of who is going to show up/what is going to be served/when things will start and end?
Because if her entire apology consists of “Everyone I could possibly have thought to ask about it tells me that I was incorrect when I claimed I had not in fact ever hurt you, therefore, I am sorry I hurt you, and I’m going to go have my unlicensed therapist wave crystals at me and pray over me until I am certified free of fault,” then she has not really apologized. She has not really changed.
(And she’s going to do it to your niblings too.)
I am so very, very sorry for everything you have gone through, and everything you are going through. You deserve happiness. You deserve safety. You deserve someone who will be as careful to respect your emotional well-being as you have been to respect your mum’s.
I want to add to be wary of generic apologies. People who refuse to reflect on their behaviour will often say things like, “I’m sorry for/I take responsibility for what I’ve done,” “for not being a good parent,” “for what I did that hurt you,” or other things that sound like remorse but if pressed, they couldn’t name one thing they’ve actually done wrong.
Absolutely seconding that apologies require changed action. In order to change that action they have to be able to state plainly what they actually did to cause the harm.
I feel that. I blew up at my mother in law and she said “I’m truly sorry” no you’re not actually realizing that the way you talked about your grandchild is not ok. She seems to have gotten the message to treat me gingerly though and that’s probably for the best right now.
I have ongoing Issues with an emotionally abusive father and (now deceased) enabling mother, for which I’ve been in therapy for 6 years, since Mum’s death (I’m 45. There’s a lot to catch up on).
Mostly I wanted to say that it’s got better. I’m not promising that it will for everyone, or anything else that predicts other people’s futures, but just saying this as anecdata.
What worked for me: Realising how Dad made me feel. Talking to my wonderful therapist about what my childhood was like and realisng that it was astoundingly different from the childhoods I’m now seeing modelled by parent friends. Going “no contact” – at least from my end, during the prolonged extinction burst and guilt trips. Telling Dad in every way I could think of why I needed to cut contact – from carefully considered “When you do x, I feel y” language to straight up “You make my depression worse” – and seeing him ignore and “forget” everything I said.
The tipping point was one visit – I now only go home when my sister & her family are also visiting – when Dad cut himself off from a woe-is-me monologue mid sentence, when my BIL walked into the room. Seeing him be able to do that, when my depression!brain had always told me that he’s old and ill and lonely, and can’t help himself, and maybe he’s right that I’m an ungrateful cruel child, made me realise that it *is* a choice for him. It was as if a switch clicked in my head, and I suddenly didn’t care any more.
I still only visit when sister et al are also there, but it doesn’t upset me any more. Dad’s just someone to whom I have some small duty, and about whom I can feel sorry, but it’s just a chore now. I can think “He’s a horrible old man”, but now that comes with “…and his behaviour sucks” instead of “…and it’s all my fault and I’m a terrible daughter”.
Good luck to everyone else going through this sort of thing ❤
I’m newly estranged from my parents and I have no friend in my siblings. (One is Team Mom 4Eva and when I invited him to lunch post-estrangement he told me no one in the family would speak to me again until I fixed it with her. The other I honestly don’t think would notice if I died for all the contact we have in a regular year so first sibling was kind of right, but not for the reasons he thinks he is.)
It’s kind of funny because it’s my dad I’m really, truly, never again in this life going to speak to again. I cut off my mom to cauterize the wound – she defends him and gaslights the shit out of me (unless she’s VERY drunk in which case she can suddenly remember the horrific emotional abuse her husband inflicted on us both for years! FUN.) I actually do miss my mom, but she’s had my phone number and email all this time and nothing. I didn’t explain anything to them, I just vanished mid-blow-up with my dad and blocked them on everything.
I did write her an email a few weeks ago basically being like “hey it’d be cool if we had a relationship but I am not doing this with dad anymore. up for it y/n?” but no response. I have no idea whether she read it or not, or even checks email, but it felt nice to have sent that and now I get to not care anymore. I did my try.
I feel like these posts are giving me language to describe the situation with my mom – my dad is such a clear-cut asshole that even my siblings who didn’t have to grow up with him are like “eeeeh, fair”. But mom has always been the martyr sacrificing all for her children, and the other half of my team against the tyranny of dad, the purveyor of family gossip…the dynamic is very broken but it’s hard to break with her partly because the Koolaid is so strong in the family of Mom=Angel and partly because she really was the rock I affixed my tiny little self to in hopes of being safe from my dad.
I don’t really know where I’m going with this, but thank you for the resources, they are very helpful in a time when I’m really struggling. ❤
I just wanted to say that this line of yours really struck me:
“the dynamic is very broken but it’s hard to break with her partly because the Koolaid is so strong in the family of Mom=Angel and partly because she really was the rock I affixed my tiny little self to in hopes of being safe from my dad.”
Your family dynamic as described in this comment is eerily similar to mine and I had that exact same experience–I was devoted to my mum as a small child because she was the “safe”, warm, loving parent VS my perpetually angry, emotionally/physically abusive father.
I’m the oldest daughter and remember clinging so, so hard to the fantasy that mum would divorce dad just like she promised, and then I’d never have to see him again or endure another raging tantrum of his. But…they were still together when I graduated high school and moved out for university (I told myself that I just needed to suck it up as she stayed with him “for the kids” until my youngest brother graduated HS), and still together when my youngest brother moved out…and are still together to this day, 8 years after my youngest brother moved out for college.
The dynamic between my parents is so warped and broken at this point, but at this point mum manages to both still constantly complain about him/cling to her martyr role, and simultaneously tell me that I’m “exaggerating” the past; that “we’re no more dysfunctional than many other families” (maybe true, but so what?), and, on her last visit to me, that “he (Dad) never hit me.” (This is 100% a lie and was a wake-up call for me about how messed up she is and how she needs to rewrite the past so that she can feel good about herself and her passivity.)
I don’t really know what to do with all of this either, but have also found that CA’s posts and scripts (and the commenters!) give me language to describe what’s happening, as well as the knowledge that 1) it wasn’t and isn’t OK and 2) that I have the power to protect myself and advocate for my best interests. Mum wasn’t able to keep me safe the way I hoped for so badly as a little girl–but I can keep myself safe now.
Ugh I have been thinking about this topic lately, ever since my dad disowned me recently. We have never had a good relationship, because of his unacknowledged alcoholism and utter inability to admit he is ever in the wrong about anything. He has never, ever, to my knowledge, apologized for anything. I didn’t talk to him for a number of years but did let him back into my life for Reasons. A few months ago I told him something he had done bothered me, and hoo boy it was on. What do you mean – I thought it was fine and so did everyone else – you’re mistaken – you have always been hateful to me and I don’t understand it – what about the other person who was there, I bet you’re not having the same conversation with them (but I was) – etc etc etc. I was finally told that my siblings are his children but not me. And in spite of myself and my lack of desire to talk to him or see him – it still hurts my feelings! And what do I say to my school aged kids, who love Grandpa?
Honestly, I was in a similar situation as a child and it was fine. I was confused and disappointed, but as a child parents as often confusing and disappointing. I got over not being able to eat cookies for breakfast, even when I couldn’t see the harm. I got over not being able to spend the night with my grandparents, even though it was pretty fun. I could see that the whole thing was really upsetting my mom and basically trusted that she had her reasons even if I didn’t understand them. As an adult, I think it was a really good life lesson in, “ you really, really don’t have to spend time with mean people.” This could be a good time to teach your kids that sometimes we love people who do bad things and how to deal with that.
M5; My h (now dead) was an alcoholic. I had to deal with his increasingly erratic and even dangerous behaviour when our d was very small, and try to explain to her what was happening, so I feel for you and your kids. It is a horrible situation for you all. The best I can say is, tell them the truth. They don’t have to know every last detail, but it is important that what you do say is true. My h was a liar, even when he didn’t need to be; it was as if he couldn’t help it. He said he loved our d, and he said he loved me, but the sad truth was he loved drinking more. I needed my d to know that whatever happened I would be honest with her. I am not sure if that will help or not, but I wish you and your children well and happy.
I’m not sure what the best tack to take is. With my 10 year old I told her that I’m sad because grandpa is sick and not going to see the doctor (likely dementia and alcoholism). I think she figured out the alcohol part but “sick” is a good way to go and is hopefully not too much information.
M5, It is horribly difficult to go from “this is my parent who loves me and is trying their best” to “this is someone who can’t be trusted to treat me well”. But if you can drop contact again, I think it would be safest for you to do so. Safest for you *and* your children. And I think telling them truth like cathy above says is the best way to do it. “Grandpa is mean to me, and I don’t need to be around people who are mean to me.” And you can reassure them that when they’re older (maybe at a definite age, like 13 or 16), they can make their own decisions about whether or not to resume contact with him.
And see if you can contact your siblings without involving your dad; they may have Thoughts and Feelings about him too.
All my best wishes to you and yours!
This part of Captain’s response from Letter #1233 really resonated with me: “…so if a parent is having to pull out the org-chart and the fact that they did the bare minimum to enforce a connection with a fellow adult, why is that, exactly? (They always pretend they don’t know, but they do.)”
My mother was so good at claiming not to know why I couldn’t trust her. When I was a teenager, she would seemingly randomly (in the sense that we weren’t fighting at all at the time because I was the good, quiet kid who didn’t fight) call me selfish and conceited and related bad things. I never fought back. But when I was in college and after, my mother seemed truly completely confused about why I never confided in her. She even wrote me a long letter that I still have but can’t stand to reread that apologized for anything she might have done to hurt me, claimed that I was much better than she was, etc. I didn’t even respond to it just because it was so surreal to receive this after growing up with her frequent mean comments. (She would also defend abusive people in my life, like a terrible narcissistic college boyfriend, because she liked them and wanted to keep hanging around with them – she was waaaaay too enmeshed in my social life from when I was in high school until I finally got more distance after college.
Anyway, I feel like I’m in between a rock and a hard place thinking about if she knew she was mean to me or not because:
If she knew she was mean to me, that means she was gaslighting me in her sweet letter. That sucks.
If she forgot she was mean to me for whatever reason – maybe because being mean to me meant so little to her that it wasn’t worth remembering, that makes me feel awful, too, because it’s so goddamn frustrating. Why does she get to have an easy conscience about how she treated me when she was actually awful a lot of the time?
My mother wasn’t awful all the time; she could be great. But that just makes things more confusing. Honestly, I think I’d feel better if I thought on some level she knew she was bad to me and was hoping I would forget. But she was so convincing when she claimed not to know why I didn’t trust her.
Back to the Captain’s quote, does anything think that abusive people know they said mean things but think they were justified? Is that how they can claim with a straight face that they love us so much and don’t understand why we aren’t warm to them? Or do they just forget? If anyone has any insights or thoughts related to this, I’d so love to hear them. This has been one of the hardest issues of my life.
I love this community. In spite of how I still struggle with these issues, I struggle soooo much less because of Captain Awkward. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Captain.
I really, honestly think that they believe in their hearts you are wrong about your experience. They have erased their behaviour so they can live with themselves – their desire to remedy their cognitive dissonance (“I am a good person”/”I did bad things”) means they *have* to believe they did nothing wrong to believe they are a good person. It’s not that they ‘forgot’ – they’ve literally rewritten history in their heads.
Or they’re so deeply invested in their good intentions that they’re blind to the negative impacts—the effects that directly conflict with what they intend. Either intentionally or unconsciously so.
My going theory is that they know, but they’ve hidden that knowledge beneath so many layers of justifications and denials and blame shifts designed to protect their egos that they’re able to convince themselves you’re wrong. Wrong about what happened, wrong in how you’re reacting to it – whatever’s most convenient for them. Ever notice how people like this change their stories all the time? I didn’t do that… well maybe I did part of it, but it wasn’t like you said it was… and even the parts you remember correctly you just have the wrong feelings about. They see it — they will just do anything possible to deflect any hint of criticism.
I think sometimes some people don’t think saying mean things to, or yelling at, your kids is mean? So that makes it easier to forget they did it, or in any case to believe that it isn’t or “shouldn’t be” a big deal.
Definitely. And it can also be some “I had it worse, my parents did X, this isn’t actually mean. This is just parenting.” I also think that things said in the heat of the moment- whether it’s frustration, anger, general blowing off steam, etc.- are easily forgotten to them because they “didn’t really mean it,” but they don’t realize sometimes it’s those exact comments that stick with a kid forever.
Ugh yep. It’s just parenting so it’s fine, and telling themselves every other parent does it, without a thought for whether it was right or kind even if every other parent really was doing it.
My mum (who is otherwise great) sometimes tells me how a family doctor told her to smack my sister (who must have been aged 3-6) to stop her bad behaviour. I assume this is how she rationalises her and my father’s use of snacking as discipline in the present day where this is highly frowned upon. One authority figure’s word. I have no reason to think she’s lying- she’s as a rule truthful. This was the UK in the 90s if anyone’s curious. Maybe it really was normal back then, but it’s important to keep in mind the entire reason why child discipline norms change is because we realise as a society that previous norms were harming children!
Judging from my own experience – she thinks she wasn’t *that* mean to you. She thinks she was the normal, ordinary, perfectly justifiable amount of mean that all parents are to their children, and indeed all people are to all other people they’re close to. This kind of unkindness is so natural to her it doesn’t even register. I think it’s often to do with narcissism (“I did it and everything I do is fine and well-intended, so I can’t have crossed a line”, plus that thing abusers and bigots do where they think everyone else in the world thinks and feels exactly the same as they do, it’s just that some of them cover it up) and a related lack of empathy (so the possibility they’ve really hurt you doesn’t occur because they just never spend time thinking about what other people’s feelings and experiences are like). So yes, it’s possible she was telling you the truth as she sees it when she wrote that letter – all that really means, though, is that you have another reason to consider her untrustworthy. I’m sorry, it’s a rough one and there aren’t any easy ways to deal with it.
There’s some truth to this. I live next door to a woman who screams abuse at her children on a daily basis (think obscenities directed at a 2 yo). The other day, I overheard the following exchange:
Mom (calling the family dog): DORIS!!! [clap clap clap]
Son (in *exactly* the same tone of voice): DORIS!!! [clap clap clap]
Mom: Don’t yell at her!!!
Mom (in *EXACTLY* the same tone of voice): DORIS!!! [clap clap clap]
She couldn’t hear herself at all.
I’m going through a similar thing with my mother – thanks to lots of reading CA over the years I have an ok relationship with her involving an information diet and hard 48 hour limits on visits. But both of my brothers have basically cut her off over the last year (due to mutual bad behavior) and she does not acknowledge in any way her contribution to the situation. In her mind she did all she could, any mean behavior was justified, and they are just being ‘abusive’ by not talking to her. This is a terrible self protective attitude that I don’t think I will be able to break through, and honestly I don’t want to try. You can tell them ‘that’s how you see it but that doesn’t make it true’ which will make you feel better but they will never understand. You just have to decide how much you are able to take (see above 48 hour rule) and enforce that boundary as strongly as you are able.
If I could force my mom into therapy I would do it in a heartbeat – she can be such a fun, warm, funny person that it is heartbreaking to see how she self sabotages. All I (and you can do) is protect your own heart and mental health.
” does anything think that abusive people know they said mean things but think they were justified?”
Sort of? They know what they said BUT, they think they are justified in saying it indeed.
Maybe because of a massive sense of entitlement, maybe because they think your feelings aren’t real, maybe a lot of things.
Maybe they think you’re not a real person at all but just an extension of them, because you’re their kid. (or spouse or or or)
They certainly don’t think what they said -matters- in the sense that they don’t think there should be any consequences for them.
I don’t think it matters what the thought process is. You’re not their therapist.
Does their behaviour suck? Enforce that boundary. There is no mandatory minimum awfulness before you’re allowed to shield yourself.
Sometimes I think, figuring out the thought processof someone who harmed me matters to me, just because…I dunno. I *want* to understand, to figure it out. I think there’s a way in which not knowing, or having zero framework, makes abuse or harassment even scarier. Not-knowing contributes to my fear as much as the pain does. So, knowing, or reasonably guessing– having a mental model like, “THIS is what was going on inside that person’s head” helps me heal and be less afraid moving forward.
That said, everyone’s process is different. For some people, “don’t know, don’t care,” helps them move forward because it emphasizes the core value of their own being and the inherent wrongness in the act of harm done against them. And, to be fair, it has also been very healing to have friendships where a friend was just angry on my behalf (angry at injustice done against me or harm done to me) in a way I couldn’t be for myself.
I think figuring out the underlying why can be helpful / healing as long as I’m not using that to rationalize what someone did or put myself in harm’s way again. But other approaches are definitely valid too!
The wounded-innocence act you describe is reeeaaal familiar. The person who does it to me, I suspect, is genuinely capable of dissociation to the point of blocking memories in which they abuse me and others…but they also know how and when to throw that switch for greatest advantage. They “remember” one incident that was medically documented, for example, and they’ve actually brought it up to others, to get ahead of the story, as it were, all while denying that it was textbook battering and part of a larger pattern. Where there’s no paper trail, if I bring something up they revert to full denial, with much emoting and many expressions of suffering. They’re not trained as an actor; in a way, in order to lie at all, they have to believe it’s true.
I don’t know if that’s helpful. All I’m trying to say is, for abusers there is no logic but abuse logic, no truth except “i am good you are bad,” so it’s maybe best to stop interpreting their statements and behavior.
I absolutely believe that abuse people know they are being mean/shitty, but think they are justified. I had an emotionally abusive ex and when I asked him, after we broke up, why he had been so mean to me he said “I was just trying to make you stand up for yourself.” Translation: My shitty behavior is ok as long as it gets the results I want.
I so appreciate everyone’s comments; they all make sense. Making sense of this alone is just impossible, isn’t it? After enough gaslighting, it’s so hard to trust your own mind. My husband must get tired of me asking things like, “I think [someone’s mean comment] is mean; do you think it is?” But one step at at time, through therapy, Captain Awkward, and the Awkward Army, I’m learning to trust my own perceptions. Sending jedi hugs to everyone here.
Captain Awkward linked to the main site, but http://www.issendai.com/psychology/estrangement/why-estranged-parents-forums.html goes into more detail about how the psychology of parents who claim they didn’t do anything wrong/there’s no reason for the estrangement. Sometimes they outright say the reasons, but they aren’t “good enough” reasons.
The other people in your family want you to pick up the burden of caring for her because they don’t want to talk to her.
That is bullshit and you can ignore it 100%.
Pick up the phone, say “mom it is hurting me to talk to you, I’m hanging up now”. Repeat. If it does not get through, do not answer the phone.
Your mother has other options to get the dopamine hit she’s getting from talking to you, you are not her only support in the world. If she can’t exert boundaries you can enforce them.
Your shrink works for you and does not get to decide what you work on. You tell them this is the priority right now and the rest waits until this is fixed. You set the agenda in therapy. They are your employee. This is also a pretty easy fix because it’s a question about actions, not feelings. What to do. Simple.
Endorse this 150%.
OMGGGG. When, after we broke up, I explained to my abusive ex that he had constantly steamrolled me in our relationship, he replied by acting hurt, because obviously he only behaved that way because he believed I was too strong to fold under pressure like that if it was really important to me. Clearly the real problem was my misrepresentation of myself *eyeroll into eternity*
@Kasey Weird: Ugh. So eerily similar. My ex was like “I thought you were so brave and tough because you asked me out first, I wanted you to be like that again!” Like, guess what asshole, it does not require that much bravery for me to message some dude on okcupid when I am safe alone in my bedroom. It is not a sign of some kind of supernaturally iron-clad psyche. WTF kind of reasoning is that?
Long-time lurker first-time commenter on this Oddly Relevant and Timely Item… Basically, imagine the meme phrase “I am very small and I have no money, so you can only imagine the stress I am under” and you will have a good idea of my situation.
I (she/her, early 20s) am living at home again (after undergrad+grad school) with my very kind and well-meaning but controlling parents; I’m financially and logistically dependent on them and always have been. I was dismissed from my recent (final before graduation) fieldwork placement for reasons probably not unrelated to my anxiety, depression, general academic burnout, and potentially-by-which-I-mean-‘never-confirmed’ autism (yes, I’m getting proper evals soon). I’ve been in limbo for a couple of months now – appealed the dismissal and got another fieldwork promise for next summer, IF I fulfill their requirements in March and reapply.
Through all of this there was sympathy and very little blame on me from the parents, but also absolute truckloads of unsolicited advice, scripting things out for me to say to various authorities, worrying about my future, trying to make me keep records in case we needed to take legal action against my school later (thankfully that has been abandoned as a plan), encouragement to work as hard as I can on the requirements so that if the school expels me it won’t be my fault for not trying, their general anxiety about my search for a temporary job, more scripting for the job hunt until I actually up and told my mom one night “I can come up with my own words,” and commiseration about how much this all stinks for my mom as well as for me (the situation with delayed graduation).
I want to tell her *no, your pain is because I didn’t fly as high as I always have (by objective outward metrics) in the past; mine is because I’m trapped here after leaving for a while and thinking I was gonna surely leave again.* I’m not sure what would happen.
I’ve gotten a job finally, here in the area. I’m living in my own bedroom from when I was 12, in the same messy house that’s grown only messier in the interrum. I have very few friends in the area; my social outlets are basically long-distance friend communication, my pets (beloved dog, mouse, fish), animals at the shelter, and the DnD podcast I listen to every Thursday night (while getting multiple parental warnings about the effects of blue light on sleep). I’m in therapy (assuming I can keep it up with my new work schedule) and on medication and with an autism evaluation scheduled.
Everything still stinks. Not in huge terrible ways, but in the small grind of things, and the What Will Mom Freak Out About Next ways. I am very open to tips on how to deal with the yawning gulf of 8+ More Months of This, when leaving would still keep me in the general area (because new job) and would seem horrifically ungrateful after they paid for my graduate school (and will continue to do so once I’m placed again for fieldwork, so I still depend on them). Small ways to assert my adulthood, deflect commentary on food and sleep and such; reassurances that I can shut the door of my room more often without feeling terrible??; hints on finding and making community when my social anxiety seems to be getting worse day by day; making myself Do Things on days that I would rather lie on my bed and do nothing; any of this is helpful. Thanks much.
Bookwizard; Fwiw, I think you are doing a fantastic job and you have already achieved so much! Keep going!
If you don’t mind a bit of advice, start with that door. Close it whenever you want to close it; that is the only criterion that matters. Don’t second guess whether it is right or not; just do it. Your parents will survive.
If the door has no lock, acquire one and fit it, and lock it whenever you need to. If you can’t fit a lock then a nice solid door wedge will do the same thing. For now, make your own room yours, as much as you possibly can; it is your refuge from the world. You may be living in the same house as before, but you are not the same person. The rules have changed; you are an adult and you can make choices for yourself that may not have been possible before. If you feel terrible then ride out that feeling and try to connect with the blessed relief of a closed door instead.
Yes, the parents will still be there, still offering far too much advice on the other side of the door, for which, ‘Thanks, I’ll certainly think about that!’ is a useful possible answer, but on your side? On your side you enter Narnia or Rivendell or wherever you like, and you can stay there as long as you like.
If you do mind this advice feel free to ignore every word. You are an adult now; you get to choose for yourself.
Your parents sound very much like mine, which is why I’m happy to see them often in small doses but dread seeing them for long periods where I essentially turn back into my fifteen year old self. They’re nice people, but mum specifically handles her own anxiety by inventing issues for other people to give them advice about. She doesn’t see herself as a negative person, because doing this makes her feel better, but all she’s doing is handing her anxiety on to the nearest person instead.
Is there anything you can pick up with positive milestones in the meantime? Something that your parents can’t insert themselves into and that gives you a bit of real privacy and/or social interaction, that’s unrelated to your childhood hobbies so it doesn’t feel like another step backwards? The thing that’s immediately leaping to mind is running, which can be a purely solo activity or a group event, and which you can set achievable goals in that you can focus on instead of all the limbo, but I appreciate that’s not an option for everyone. NaNoWriMo has a community and goals, and if you can get away with getting out of the house for writing sessions that’s a positive too. Taking your lovely dog to the park and train it to complete Crufts-style obstacle courses to remind yourself any dog can learn new tricks? A new craft with a specific target piece in mind (knitting and sewing are good, because you can target increasingly impressive projects, can give them away when you’re done, and a lot of areas have stitch&bitch workshops where you can get away for a few hours)?
One thing I found helpful when I had to briefly move back in after college was to try and behave like a roommate when possible. By this I mean: take turns doing dishes/cooking/etc. as appropriate; if the trash is full, take it out, clean up after pets, and generally be considerate of being loud/etc. when people are sleeping. You don’t have to do everything, and you may already be doing that, but if you’re not, it can be helpful in giving you the mental space to feel free to close your door (my thought process was basically: “okay, I have have been a considerate adult housemate, now they can be considerate and respect my closed door without my worrying about it”).
Hi, Bookwizard! I feel you, because I’m currently stuck in a very similar living situation. Those are fucking tough circumstances, and you are doing great under them, okay? Even if you aren’t able to believe that right now, write it down and hang it somewhere visible or say it to yourself often, because it’s true.
What helps me cope:
– These CAwkward posts: https://captainawkward.com/2011/09/12/reader-question-110-how-do-i-claw-my-way-out-of-this-depressing-living-situation/ https://captainawkward.com/2013/02/16/450-how-to-tighten-up-your-game-at-work-when-youre-depressed/
– Therapy, plus this community and its amazing book recs (esp. when therapy is unavailable).
– Spending as much time as possible out of the house. Libraries are a life-saver, cheap, and have low social interaction requirements, especially if you cook and bring enough food to last you through the day.
– Fresh air. Any green, quiet, naturey areas near you where you can take a daily walk and just be? If there are no suitable parks around and graveyards don’t creep you out, they also work (not kidding about that, just be respectful when you visit).
– Movement. Exercise is a great mood stabilizer if you can manage even a 15-min vigorous walk per day. Can be combined with fresh air, but best not to go jogging through your local cemetery.
– Having an exit plan (and working towards each mini goal). You already do, so keep it in sight. Come hell or high water, by X date you’re out of there. Eyes on the prize.
– Having many contingency plans. My final one is, if everything that can possibly go wrong does, I’m getting a job in a different field by January 2021, saving like crazy, and getting out by June that year. I know I can deploy it if necessary, so I feel less pressured by having to accomplish my better exit plan, which in turn helps me feel more motivated.
– Inertia and routine. Take that first step in your day (i.e. getting out of bed) and use its momentum to help you onwards. Do things by rote, but do them. Set an amount of time for work everyday and sit down on your desk and work for fifteen minutes, and if that doesn’t work, stay sitting there for an hour, trying your best to work (no distractions, the goal is to bore yourself into starting). If it’s not working when your hour is up, start doing chores or go to the library and try working there for the rest of your set time. Set times for meals, waking up and going to sleep. Get enough food and sleep and do it as well as you’re able. Every little bit of routine helps you keep moving forward, but good sleep and meals help a lot.
– Nurture your relationships with the people who make you feel great. I pick one person per day and text or call them, adjust to your needs.
– Cut yourself some slack. You are doing great, but you are human. You are allowed to make mistakes.If you fuck up, give yourself a moment, and try again when you’re able.
You got this.
If its not to far off-topic, I just wanted to share a poem from which I got a certain amount of comfort:
This Be The Verse, by Philip Larkin (an English poet who died in 1985)
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Spot on in my case. Thank you so much for sharing. It took me years, a really traumatic event and therapy to realize they fucked me up real bad, even more time to move on to being a healthier person, more time again to be able to talk about it with them, more time still for my mom to open up about her own crappy childhood and begin to realize and accept the fact that she made many mistakes as a parent (my dad still has his head in the sand), and I’m finally in a place where I’m no longer angry all the time, I’m good at speaking my mind and setting boundaries, and I no longer need apologies. Fucking years to grieve for the childhood you’ll never have, the parents you’ll never have and the childhood and parents they’ll never have.
Spot on re: the grief of the childhood you didn’t get to have and the parents you didn’t get (and still don’t get) to have. Having to be the parent/friend friend/parent for my mom beat out of me any desire to have children.
I’ll be soon too old to get pregnant and I can’t wait for it to happen. Taking care of myself is already a full-time job and I wouldn’t want to pass on some of the genetics I have inherited anyway. I’m very happy being me but it took me way too long to get there.
I went to an exhibition of Larkins possessions recently and saw his letters to his mother. He had a complicated relationship with her, he wrote often but always addressed her as ‘Creature’ rather than mother, even in letters.
I’m having a rough time with this, this season.
Over the summer, my mom badly fucked up with my kids. Long story short: older kid came out as trans last year, my dad is generally handling it well, and my mom both said a miscellany of crappy things to older kid (everything from “you were such a pretty girl, though!” to “I don’t understand how you have a boyfriend, then” to “can I still call you [feminine form of birthname]?” AND then attempted to pump younger kid for information of “is this just a trendy thing older kid’s friends are into?” etc. There was other massive crap from her related to kids’ collective educational plans that was rude and uncalled for too (complete with trying to convince younger kid to change college plans to a college nearby to where my mom lives and move in with my parents to save money, OH HELLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL NO).
Both of them are still furious, I’m none too pleased myself, and I’m supporting them in whatever they decide. Older kid is away at college now and is basically small-doses texting his grandma at this point – they were very close before this and I know he misses her a lot. A package of school stuff came for younger kid and I said she was going to have to either refuse the gift outright or at least send a thank you text acknowledging it was received. She chose the latter but hasn’t had much to say to her grandma since.
I’m still mad, too. But mostly in a disappointed-but-not-surprised way, since my mom was similarly not-great about me coming out as bi. Our relationship recovered somewhat but it’s hard to see that this has perpetuated with the next generation. And my inlaws a) are dead and b) were overtly abusive fundamentalists who tried to “beat the devil out” of my husband when he was a kid, so my kids are really feeling the loss of extended family. I’m hoping that my dad can be around for them more, and he’s trying, but it’s hard.
AnonyMom, that is a LOT! I’m so impressed with you and your hubby and your children. Y’all are standing up to a horrible amount of erasure and phobic behavior. I hope your mom comes around, and I hope someone other than y’all helps to do the work to help her come around (maybe your dad will have the energy, knowledge and will to help).
Also, there’s a FB group called Stand-In Families International “working together to provide resources, support, and love to the LGBTQIA+ community”, if you want to find “substitute” extended family, even for just online support.
All my best wishes and zen hugs!
I am no contact with my terrible parents and my father’s side of the family and I’m having a much better time. No more screaming matches on holidays! No more gaslighting about whether I have the “right” to be angry about some tiny thing that’s actually a symptom of a larger dysfunctional dynamic! No more carefully inspecting my food to ensure there’s no Secret Allergen in there! Oh, and now that everyone in my life actually knows me for who I am, I don’t have to awkwardly pretend that I love the horrible overpriced makeup or the assault rifle that someone just gifted me even though I’d really just prefer a cute animal sculpture!
My soon-to-be in-laws… okay, *I’m* no contact with them too, but my fiance maintains a relationship with them. They’re, uh… horrible. FMIL is an emotional vampire and utter drama llama, and FFIL acts like The Reasonable One but actually will shame and guilt-trip and manipulate everyone in order to appease her. But since he does a good job saying “listen, I’m on your side, but…” when FMIL is out of earshot, fiance thinks he’s a totally chill parent and in no way dysfunctional.
Fiance has plane tickets to visit them for Christmas (it’s just NOOOOOOT CHRIIIIIIISTMAS without the whole FAAAAAAAAAMILY) and while I’m *trying* not to be That Partner (you know, the one who abusively gets in the way of you having a relationship with your family), I’m pretty fucking peeved that he’s going to spend a week being friendly with people who, last time I saw them, yelled in my face because I was “stealing” their son (FMIL) and gave me a massive guilt-trip about how I needed to be nicer because I “didn’t understand what it was like to be [FMIL], she’s had a difficult life, just last week she lost her favorite diamond earrings and didn’t find them for several days” (FFIL). Please keep in mind that I had done precisely nothing to justify this – I was just dating their son and trying to build a friendly relationship with the two of them.
Ugh. It’s enough to make me go HULK SMASH.
[Apologies in advance, but I guess talking about this at all requires a big CONTENT WARNING, so here you go]
My father sexually abused me as a young child, and verbally and emotionally (and physically? if laxative abusing your children counts?) abused me and my two siblings all of our lives. He has a totalizing personality. He demands fealty. I cannot get out from under him. Even typing this feels like I’m attempting to write a poem in a bunker under heavy artillery fire. Is it really safe enough to be writing all of this out? I moved to Argentina a little over four years ago where I just started an entirely new life: I didn’t know anyone here, I didn’t speak Spanish. I’m incredibly happy here now and I think it’s only because I have a new language to express myself in that I’ve been able to really admit how damaged I am from my childhood and go to therapy to address it (therapy in your second language is…sometimes astonishing…I’m grateful I have this whole new way of expressing myself, because THESE AREN’T HIS WORDS). I needed sufficient (thousands of miles!) of distance from my father. But every father’s day he demands our ritual acts of kissing the ring and praising him for being the best father and for his “lessons” (his favorite word). Did I mention that he raised us in a cult and then decided to found his own cult? And now that he’s burned through all of his money on fraudulent schemes and tax evasion and has a mega lien from the IRS on his social security income, he stole my aunt’s inheritance (the only legacy she was given for taking care of my grandparents for 40 years) as well as my disabled brother’s social security income? Then he Jedi mind-tricks my sister into giving him even more money when he and my mother finally move from a monstrosity of an ego trip of a house that required the sheriff tacking an EVICTION NOTICE ON THE DOOR?
This is the tip of the iceberg, as you can imagine.
But the pressure from my dad and mom to swear featly, kiss the ring, pretend that everything was great on these milestone days of my dad’s is unbearable. His birthday is torture for me. I sit in my beautiful home thousands of miles away and cry in my partner’s arms and feel like I’m going to vomit because I don’t know what to say. I love my dad. The love I feel for him is torture. My therapist told me this week that she doesn’t think that my dad really loves me. I had a hard time believing her. But then she said something that made sense to me: maybe he ‘loves’ me (tal vez te quiere) but he doesn’t love me (pero no te ama). The difference in Spanish is incredibly nuanced and helpful–maybe this might help someone else out there, so I offer it in that spirit. I do feel his love, but it is a selfish love, a desire to have me be the person he wants me to be, to playact that he did not do what he did and that our childhood was this perfect creation of this spiritual master that he imagines himself to be. Love doesn’t do what he did to me.
I am terrified of what he might do to my mom if I really confront him about anything. I watched her getting abused by him all of my life–and yes, I know that she also has responsibility, and believe me I’m plenty mad at her, but in the end, I don’t want to do anything that sparks more misery. So I have had some frank conversations with her about dad, but I haven’t said anything about the sexual abuse (which I think she suspects, because she’s started making vague noises about not wanting me to “make things up”–a refrain from my childhood–and she admitted to my sister that she remembers our father hypnotizing the three of us, an act my father is now denying, but “it didn’t work on [sister] and [brother]”…and just didn’t mention me at all). The last time my sister and I had a really frank conversation with her she went back to try to “talk” to him and ended up leaving a message on my sister’s voice mail that raised the hairs on my arms…she sounded absolutely terrified, said that she was alone and desperately needed my sister to call her back ASAP. Then the rest of the day until around MIDNIGHT she didn’t pick up the phone or respond and the next day it was as if she’d been Stepford-wived again. I swear to god I debated calling the police (but we’re a black family and, Jesus, this shit is so messed up, layers and layers of trauma and abuse and violence). If that was what happened with me deliberately avoiding the biggest bombshell, how do I talk to my mom about the rest of it?
Every time I go back to the states I feel this monstrous weight settling on my shoulders, twisting my guts, squeezing my lungs. I can barely survive the week or two I spend there (and no, I’m not spending most of my time–or even all, this last time–with my parents). But the weight of expectations, of what to say to them, of what to say to my mom and my aunt, of how to LIVE…
I’m going to go back more next year and I just don’t know what to do. Everything with my family has blown up so much this past year and i know it could get so much worse. I could just cut off my father. I know that. But I don’t know how to convince myself to do that and besides, he is so controlling and has so much control of my mother right now, and I desperately want to maintain a relationship with her. Right now we’re at the point where sometimes she has to pretend to be speaking with someone else and go to the bathroom to speak with me.
I think my war metaphor is more spot-on than I realized. I removed myself physically, but I’m still there, trying to find some kind of goddamn peace. I’m sorry if this was a bit of an emotional dump, but if anyone has any insights about how to handle my upcoming trips to the states and not feel quite so much like I’m drowning in a tar pit, I’d be really grateful.
I am so terribly sorry you’re going through this. It sounds like so much of your pain is from feeling like you still must do something, anything, to counter and minimize your father’s predation, toxicity, and destruction.
I think your war zone metaphor is apt, and can be extended a little: When an enemy is firmly entrenched, has vastly superior firepower, and has demonstrated willingness to engage in war crimes and mass destruction, there is no shame in leaving the battlefield. It’s not cowardice or dishonorable to leave when you don’t have the (illegal, morally wrong!) weaponry to stand against your enemy. Indeed, it’s just the opposite: You have a responsibility to yourself to get out of the line of fire.
From what you’ve described, it doesn’t sound like there is *anything* you could possibly do to produce any sort of meaningful change in your father’s behavior. I think you could use every script and suggestion the Captain has ever offered, work with your therapist on strategies for years and years, and still your behavior will never effect the kind of change you (or any human being) would need to see in him.
If you need a random internet stranger’s validation of your instinct to totally cut your father off, you have mine.
Because you’ve tried hard enough. He simply can’t be changed. Not by you, not by law enforcement, not by your mom, not his religious authorities, not anyone.
To go back to your war metaphor, it sounds like your mom is a POW deep in a bunker behind enemy lines, and you simply don’t have the special forces team to go after her, nor any resources to improve her conditions. I think your war metaphor is useful if you consider it to be virtually literally true; sometimes, in real life, hostages and POWs just *can’* be recovered under present conditions. Sometimes the only option is to wait for the captor to fall.
So secret phone calls might need to be the only way you have a relationship with your mom that doesn’t put you in your dad’s line of fire.
I know it’s so much easier said that done. But having lived in family that cut ties with its monster, I can tell you: However initially bad it might feel, cutting off egregious toxicity ultimately feels GREAT in the long run. Acknowledging that you have no power except to disengage brings a tremendous day-to-day peace, because you never feel compelled to *act.*
My family cut off our own monster; we stopped seeing him on holidays, on Father’s Day, even when he was dying, and we all feel just fine about it today. None of us have the slightest hint of guilt whatsoever, because it was the only action any of us could reasonably have taken. He *forced* us to take the ultimate act of self-defense. That’s on *him.*
If it were me, I would cancel my upcoming trip to the states, even if it means losing a deposit. Or I might go on the trips, but only to see other family members, with advance warning to all of them that I will not tolerate any interference in my decision to cut ties and will physically leave any conversation on the topic. No “surprise” dinners with the family monster in attendance, no wheedling to reconcile, no “but faaaaamily,” nothing. “But your dad…” “Welp, here are my keys. I think I’ll go see a movie. You coming, Sis? No? Goodnight, then.”
(To that end, if it were me, I would only go on this trip if I had the personal resources to physically leave at any moment. Personal transportation and housing would have to be absolutely *locked in* at all times. If I didn’t have those resources, I would not go on the trip)
I suspect this is not the kind of response you were hoping for. I’m guessing you were hoping there might be one last script, one final strategy, to make a relationship with your father more tolerable. But having read your account, I sincerely believe there is nothing you can do to make your relationship with father tolerable, anymore than you could make standing on a battlefield with machine gun fire and mustard gas tolerable.
Follow your instincts on this.
Jedi hugs to you.
So much this. To a new exile: You don’t have to keep performing for your father. Protect yourself. If you do choose to go, please do as The Story Girl says and have your own transportation (rental car) and housing (hotel) so you can leave when you need to.
A new exile; I am so sorry for all that you are going through. I can’t understand all of it, because I am not in your situation, but I did have a very controlling dad. Here is one thing I can say. My dad couldn’t read my mind. He simply couldn’t.
He could demand obedience, and no answering back, and no slamming doors or dissent of any kind. He could even make sure we had the right look on our faces when he shouted at us. He could behave however he liked. But he couldn’t stop me thinking anything I wanted to think.
Here is what you can do. Every time you do what he wants, every time you kiss his ring you can think to yourself, ‘And you can kiss my arse!’ And he will never, ever know! He can’t actually control you because you are not a robot; you are a whole person; no matter how hard he tries, he can’t do it. He can’t stop you thinking whatever you want, he can’t stop you being who you are; ultimately he has failed.
You get to be you; the best he can be is himself.
You win. You choose to spend time with your mother, even at such a very high cost. But you choose.
Every single time, you win.
As a survivor of a very similar sexually abusive father, let me say that the most important thing here is kereping yourself safe. Our culture tends to assume that there is One Correct Way to be a survivor and that includes a face to face confrontation and without it, no cathartic healing can occur.
It wasn’t safe for me to do a face to face confrontation, nor have I been able to report him to police. What I did was get distance from him, find safe, kind relationships and get into therapy. I really recommend prioritising your sanity over any survivor mission to save your family or get answers from him. These might be part of your journey but you don’t have to take this all on. Most trauma therapy programs focus on a 3 stage approach, the first stage being stabilisation and safety because you need that before you begin to process your memories and emotions.
In terms of resources:
Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors and Carolyn Springs web blog and book.
Matt Atkinsons workbook ‘Resurrection after Rape’ (not faith based) and his book ‘Letters for Survivors.’
Judith Hermans books on trauma, her father daughter incest one really helped me.
No advice, but seconding your therapist: tal vez te quiere, pero no te ama.Creo que el no te ama nadie. Solamente se ama a si mismo.
Tu hermana y tu madre te aman, pero tu madre tiene miedo. Cuida de te mismo primero, entonces de tu hermana.
(I hope I got the Spanish right; what I learned/remember is a mix of Castilian, Dominican, and Nuyorican, not Rioplatense.)
You got your message across, Vicki, don’t worry. And well said!
And on that point, A new exile, I’m glad you found a language you could use to talk about your feelings. English is like that for me, because I had never been able to talk honestly about my feelings till I found this blog (thank you so much, Cap!). *multilingual fistbump of solidarity*
Creo que incluso si tu padre te quiere, no te quiere bien, te quiere mal. Que no te engañe el refrán, quien bien te quiere **no** te hará llorar. Y no todos los quereres son buenos, por desgracia.
You’re not doing anything wrong. You are a good sister, a good daughter, a good partner, above all a good person. It’s not your fault your father is a bad father, husband, and person, but he does not determine who you are. You are you, and you are good. His opinions about who you are are not true and will never be.
I don’t have anything first- or secondhand to add, but your narrative reminded me in some respects of Educated, by Tara Westover (Idaho fundamentalist). It might be an interesting perspective to take in.
I am not dealing with anything even remotely as bad as even a fraction of this and I’ve cut off all ties for years at a time, I very much recommend it.
I’d give it at least five years before reconsidering contact.
The gauge I use now is if it bothers me even slightly, if it’s anything I don’t go into happily, experience happily, and leave happier? I don’t go, I don’t pick up the phone, I don’t answer the communication.
If there is the slightest hesitation or doubt I do not do it.
If I go in happily and it stops being happily at any point I leave immediately with no explanation, excuse or warning. They’ll figure it out eventually. If not, oh well.
Turns out life is infinitely better that way. Like how your family would want for you if they were able to properly care. You owe them nothing.
Congrats on the move, best method. Other side of the planet is a huge relief.
I really really appreciate that this post, and yesterday’s post (all the others too but those two really struck a chord with me), talk about family relationships in a really nuanced way compared to what I often see. There is SO MUCH room in between perfect shiny happy times, and nightmare of abuse and no-contact. I had a really complicated with my father, for various reasons I won’t go into here but in short shit happened, he wasn’t a great person/father for most of my upbringing, though we had good moments. We repaired our relationship a lot in the last few years, and I don’t regret anything – when he died earlier this year I definitely had conflicted emotions about it.
But I sometimes felt so guilty/stupid for deciding to talk to him again and still have a relationship with him after everything that happened. He had changed a lot, mellowed out quite a bit, and also I imposed a lot of boundaries (didn’t tell him about them overtly, but I think he knew since he really didn’t push it.) It was ok. I also don’t choose to tell much extended family all the details. They know we were on very bad to nonexistent terms for a lot of my 20s and that’s about it. Some people I’m sure would say I was in denial or playing happy families but it was more like – I felt safe enough and in control enough to decide I would rather have him in my life.
I am so so happy that it’s becoming more acceptable online at least in the spaces I go to to say “it’s OK to not have relationships with your family” but in some places I read and certain forums etc. it’s like, if someone ever wrongs you MUST immediately break contact. And that works for some people! But it isn’t always very useful for those people who want to find a middle ground. I wish people could always be told that not having someone in their life is an *option*, but not that choosing not to do so makes them naive or worse or that things will inevitably be awful.
I’m probably too late to this party, but I grew up in a family that was emotionally and verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive. There was lots of parentification, boundary violations, put downs and name calling, threats of abandonment, and threats of suicide. There was shoving, hitting, being thrown into walls, things like my dad tearing up my books in front of me if I couldn’t fall asleep in time.
There was also lots of secrecy about the family dynamics – my mum would ask me not to tell the police, teachers or church leaders, and tell me that it wasn’t that bad and that I wouldn’t be believed if I did tell someone.
So… where is this going? Well, I have grown up into a functional adult, though it has taken some time to get here. But I have this ingrained tendency to sacrifice what I want to avoid upsetting other people. Sometimes I don’t even realise I am doing it. For example, I want try something new for work, but I am really close to my bosses and it’s hard to disappoint them by moving on. I want to go on an organised tour overseas of a country I’d be too scared to visit otherwise, but my partner doesn’t want to, so I haven’t gone on that trip because I feel like I should go on a trip he’d enjoy as well. Even just little things like I find it hard to play music in front of people in case they don’t like it, or I get nervous about buying new cushions if I know my partner won’t like them as much as me, even though he doesn’t mind.
To make matters worse I am very good at picking up on what other people are feeling (so I usually know if someone doesn’t like what I am doing).
Has anyone else experienced this? What did you do to move past it? I know the big answer is therapy. I am already doing that, so I guess I wondered if there were other practical ways to move forward. Thoughts?
My upbringing wasn’t as extreme as yours, but I recognise the pattern of abnegating your own needs and preferences in order to appease others, often unsubconsciously doing so. I had to have a burn-out to realise this habit wan’t working for me and am slowly practicing change.
A few things I’ve started doing:
– Start small by stating my preferences about food, movies and such. Like saying to friends: I’m not into pizza much today, can we pick something else? Or order a dessert when the other people aren’t having one. Or to like a band that my partner isn’t into and saying it out loud.
– Distancing myself from very dominant and opiniated or pushy people, and focus on making new friendships with people who don’t trigger my tendency to squash down my needs and preferences.
– Slow down and think about what I really want to do and ask the other person tell me what their preferences are, then try to compromise or alternate choosing what to do, rather than guess what they want and then do that.
The tendency to to sacrifice/selfa bnegate will never go away completely, but I’m learning to work around it. Good luck and best wishes with moving forward.
Speaking as the partner of someone who seems a bit like you, voicing what you’re feeling to your SO (or other safe person) might help. Starting low-stakes is a good idea, as in, ‘I’ve been listening to X lately, but I haven’t played it here because I was worried you might not like it.’ If your SO is anything like me, they will eventually wake up and go, ‘Let’s hear them then, they sound interesting!’ Or even, ‘well I’m not keen on X, but why don’t you play me your favourite track and maybe I’ll hear some of what you like about it?’
That tends to lead to a virtuous circle of him getting what he likes more often, which encourages him to articulate what he wants more. And we’re both happier because he’s not unconsciously resenting me for denying him things.
Hi fellow CAs. I am someone who had to cut off contact with my parents years ago. It has worked well for me. But, the one thing I dread is the death of one of my parents – both are alive, but in their late 80s. But, when one of them dies, I will go to the funeral to support my remaining sibling. (My sibling and I are not close, but are there for each other in the weird way that abused siblings can be.)
I am not sure how to handle a funeral for one of my parents in both the general and the specific.
Specifically, when the remaining parent moves in to hug me (because this is what normal, loving relatives do), how do I avoid this without causing a scene? My knee jerk reaction is to slap their hands away and scream “don’t touch me you asshole.” Any suggestions for a more low key way to not be touched by my abusers, but not make a spectacular scene?
Generically, how do I deflect (or respond to) the comments on how wonderful the dead parent is? Sure, this parent treated you well, but I was never treated well. I was horrifically abused. Go fuck yourself, you have no idea what I endured (you were treated well compared to what I endured).
For not touching, carry something – a funeral is a good excuse to have flowers (which you lay on the grave/coffin/relevant funereal item at the last possible moment), and if there is a wake you feel your need to attend for your sibling’s sake, keep your coat (or other bulky item of clothing – if you can get away with wearing a big hat, you can then carry it around for the wake) in your arms in front of you, which has the added bonus of you can leave at any moment and just sort of wave it at people to indicate you were about to go anyway.
in terms of what to say, the Captain has several good posts on the subject (1187 and 154 might be especially helpful for you), . Generally a “I’m glad you were close” that gives no personal information or, “thank you, but I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about them yet, i see you have a cucumber sandwich are they good?” are safe bets.
First, I must offer a jedi fist bump of solidarity. I had to cut off abusive family also. It sucks, but I am much happier and more healthy now. I hope you are feeling better, safer, and happier as well. You sound awesome!
My dad is a pro at those don’t-make-a-scene hugs. So horrible and creepy. One of many, many reasons I have not seen him in years. What I would do when my dad would try to hug me (or when anyone tries and I am just not feeling it) was to wait for him to open his arms for the hug. Then I take a big step back and turn a bit to the side while moving my hand on the side turned towards him up to touch my hair, with my elbow extended towards the would be hugger. So, my elbow would be at face height and he didn’t get too close. I did this all like I didn’t notice he was trying to move in for the hug. This works pretty well at events where decorum is valued over not wanting to be pawed at. Having a wing-person to step in and offer a handshake at this moment helps too, and can deflect the ego bruised whiny comments. I will prep my wing-person beforehand, so they know the drill. Then, make an appearance, talk to a few people with a solemn face plastered on, and then get out. I will often come down with a “cold” or similar ailment.
Also, the comments on how wonderful the abusive parent was are the woooorst! I have said things like, “It sounds like you and (abuser) had such a close connection.” Or, “It is nice for (abuser) that they had such a caring friend.” In my head I am ending both sentences with, “and lucky for you that (abuser) was forced to be ok to you because behind closed doors it was a different story.” Sometimes I have just smiled a tiny smile and nodded as if I am a bit sad. Because I am sad to have to listen to all the bullshit about how a child abuser was super nice and always attended church or whatever.
I didn’t go to my mom’s memorial service. It was my sister’s show. I was only a foil for her to parade her awesomeness, and my mom was abusive to me and a shit mom. I loved my mother, but it would have been so much healthier for me if I didn’t. My family talks about how cold and heartless I am for skipping the shitshow, but fortunately I don’t care. I cut off contact with all of them, so their words only pollute their own ears.
Jedi hugs. I hope you are safe and happy and in a good place. You don’t have to go to a service if you don’t want to. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you don’t want to walk into a room full of abusive people and their supporters.
This is extremely timely because I just had a huge mess of a family secret dumped on my laps three days ago.
My parents are great people who raised me quite well (they weren’t perfect but I love them and I never doubted that they loved me and did their best to let me thrive) and they made sure that I had a close relationship with both sets of grandparents, despite living hours away from them. All four of my grandparents have never been anything but nice to me and I went to them several times a year. I love them all.
And last week-end, my aunt who is not *estranged* but is still pretty distant from her parents, unlike my mother who call them every week and see them every 2/3 months, explained to me why her relationship with them is complicated.
Turns out that my grandparents were extremely abusive to all three of their daughters during most of their childhood.
I knew that my grandpa had been strict, but this wasn’t strict; this was neighbors-threatened-to-call-the-police-on-them, should-have-had-their-daughters-taken-away-abusive, even forty years ago. My grandpa was violent to the point that my mother apparently still has scars and my grandma was verbally abusive and gave all her daughters huge issues with food (and I have my own that my mother gave me…).
I can understand why my mother never told me about that. How do you raise the subject with your children? But what I have trouble processing is that clearly, my grandparents changed, since they never raised a hand on any of their five grandchildren and I don’t remember them ever yelling at me, and their daughters forgave them (even my aunt who only see them once a year on holidays). I was not a part of that healing process since I had no idea that it was needed, and now I don’t know how to proceed. I think that I need to talk to my mother, but how do I even start this conversation? I feel like my brothers have a right to know to, but I’m probably not the best person to tell them… And I have no idea if how much my father knows.
Fuck family secrets, I need to go back to therapy…
I don’t have solutions, but I can relate. I found out a very similar family secret, after that set of grandparents was already dead, as was their kid who is my parent, so I haven’t had to deal with it directly, but having that bomb go off in your lap is a feeling I can relate to all too well.
Solidarity from an internet stranger.
Thank you for all you do Captain. Between this website and ask a manager weekend threads, my life is a million times better. I left my abusive husband and I’ve drawn firm boundaries with my previously-abusive-now-just-not-very-good mother. I wouldn’t even have realised how unhealthy my relationships were if it wasn’t for you.
Next I’m going to have some fun times negotiating “how do I get closer to my dad without dropping my defences against my mum” and “talking to my parents about the fact they can’t stay in their house forever”. These will take some heavy negotiating. Wish me luck…
Book recommendation: “Running on Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect”, by Jonice Webb. It’s a really great resource for people who are in a place of “Well, nothing really bad happened… they were trying their best… things were hard for them when I was growing up… so why do I feel this way?” While the book does address some cases of parenting that are sadistic or narcissistic, it also talks about parenting that’s emotionally neglectful because of circumstances outside of everyone’s control (like grief or illness). That makes it a good place to start healing, because it’s focused on the experiences of the child, without requiring that you diagnose or blame parents for those experiences.
I’m definitely gonna have to go through this later when I have more time. I’ve been struggling with the idea of contacting my mom. We basically haven’t spoken in like 10 years. There was a LOT of stuff wrong in our relationship (she did that parentification thing to me, involved me in her affair she had on my father, blamed me for a lot of her problems) so I haven’t felt too bad about it really at all. I miss having sort of a mom figure in my life but I don’t think I miss her.
I always said I’d only contact her and retry a relationship if I was pregnant or getting married. And, well, I’m pregnant. I feel like she SHOULD have some kind of access to her grandchild, since I’m an only child and the only grandkid she’s likely to have, but like. Do I WANT to or do I just think I SHOULD.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
If it helps, this is not something you have to decide “now”, for basically any value of now.
If your child is three years old before you feel like bringing them to meet grandma, that’s okay. Maybe your mom will be weird and shitty about it. Maybe she will be grateful to have a chance to build a new relationship, and repair some of the one with you. Either way, you can save the choice for as long as you want to save it. Give yourself plenty of time and space to think about “want vs should”.
I think it’s important to remember that you aren’t responsible for your mother. So even if she SHOULD have something, it’s not your job to give it to her. You’re responsible for yourself and your child, so if the two of you SHOULD be protected from dangerous people, it’s your job to make sure that you are.
I would look at this in the opposite direction. Not does she deserve access to her grandchild, but what does the kid deserve. I spent some time around an abusive grandparent. They were never abusive to me, but watching that dynamic was damaging in its own right. Unless your mom has *really* changed, do you really want to model “put up with bad behavior for the sake of the family” for your kid? Imagine someone treating your kid they way your mom treats you. What would you want them to do? Show them how to do that. You also don’t want to teach your kid they should be a silent witness to bad behavior. Maybe I’m projecting way to much, but I suspect you’re focused on “it’s cruel to keep your mother from her grandchild.” I don’t think it should be about what’s best for her or what she “deserves.”
FWIW, I was finally able to get completely out of a toxic relationship with my dad because I saw him training my daughter to dance attendance on him like he trained me… and it was like something snapped in me and I said AW HEALLLLLLL NO, and that was that. Well, if I’m honest, no, not that simple, but it did give me the courage to step away from the dumpster fire and then keep going. Sometimes we protect our kids the way we needed to be protected. It’s powerful.
I hope I’m not stepping out of line here, but I wanted to give a big heartfelt Thank You! for the post yesterday about mum and you.
It rang so many bells it’s like a christmas concert in here.
Over the past 10 years I have slooooooowly been increasing the amount of information I share with my parents. They are both fundamentally caring people, but don’t really know how to do feelings. Here is what I found helped (largely learned from here):
1) Share SMALL amounts of additional information when I’m not emotionally invested in their response. Resist temptation to throw open the floodgates.
2) If they don’t respond well, explicitly tell them what I want (“I don’t actually want advice, I’m just updating you on things at work, you don’t have to say anything. No, really.”)
3) Be ready to change the subject.
4) (Luckily rare) If they insist on deep-diving something I don’t want to discuss, I quickly give my regrets and then get off the phone.
I am really amused that just when I was about to get married you had this special issue on weddings, and just as I leave my therapy session yesterday evening in which I talked about toxic family dynamics you suddenly have this special issue. Thank you, Captain Awkward, for anticipating my needs! On a more serious note, my therapist gave me the homework, for next month’s session, to read the book “Toxic Parents” by Susan Forward and Craig Buck. I haven’t started it yet, but I wanted to forward the recommendation to everyone in this blog.
I cut off contact with my entire family of origin a long time ago. Never regretted it. It can be a bit weird around the holidays when folks ask how many I am cooking for, and I say three. There is always someone who hears that and thinks they need to give me a lecture about forgiveness and understanding (like my family ever gave me either), but I just shut these folks down with TMI. Like, no I don’t think that having dinner with the man who molested me and beat me will make for a warm holiday experience. Listening to my mom berate me while trying to spin doctor family history over the bone dry turkey is not what Thanksgiving is all about. People are not owed your personal stories of abusive family trauma, but I have had good luck with weaponizing it to make condescending assholes run away and never bother me again. Yes, I know that some of these people mean well. I don’t care. If they mean well then they need to stop saying stupid shit.
I tried the partial fade, which helped but gave the family too many opportunities to still badger me, plus added ammo in the form of my failure to perform as a reliable and accessible family punching bag. It gave all the keeps awful but still a bit crappy because they were messengers for the truly abusive ones to whine, “But whyyyyyy won’t you come for Christmas? It’s faaaaamily!” Ugh.
I tried shutting down awful behavior in the moment. And it worked. For that moment. But the underlying problem continued, and so did the crap behavior. Example: my mom took over the room when I was giving birth. Made shitty comments about my looks and pain tolerance and her boredom. Invited a total stranger she met in the gift shop into my room to hang out. They stood between my knees and chatted while I huffed and puffed and tried to squeeze a baby out. Mom then argued with the doctor and tried to get her to change what medical procedure she was doing because “they didn’t do it like that back in my day!” I finally lost my shit, told Mom off, and told her to leave my room. And she did! But by the next day, the entire thing was wiped from Mom’s memory as it never happened and I just make things up because I am soooo creative and that is what creative people do. Oh, and if my pain tolerance was higher like hers is, maybe I would stop hallucinating such terrible things.
So, I eventually just stopped calling them. All of them. My abusive nighmare parents. My awful Golden child sister. My well meaning but clueless aunt and uncle. My turning-a-blind-eye-because-faaaamily extended family. My aunt who thought my dad was gay, and was less horrified to hear that he is not gay, but is instead a violent child molester. There was no announcement or final argument, I just stopped calling and visiting. I stopped all effort to stay in touch. And I never ever see them or hear from them. It is awesome.
Oh, and I had lots of therapy. Plus, support group for adults who were molested as children. Rape survivor support group. Medication when needed. All of that helped so much and I am really thankful that I had those resources available to me. Now, that soundtrack in my head that tells me I am worthless and bad has been turned waaaay down. Most days, I don’t even hear it.
I cut off contact with my emotionally abusive dad five years ago, and here are a few ways of understanding that have helped me think/talk about it:
1. I did not “destroy” our relationship by cutting off contact. I drastically improved our relationship, because “zero” is a much higher number than “negative one thousand.” You’re welcome, Dad!
2. I also did him a favor by taking away his opportunities to be a bad person by hurting me.
3. If you, like me, are from a religious tradition that values forgiveness, a few tips:
a. Separate “forgiveness” from “reconciliation.” You can forgive someone while still offering them the aforementioned helpful favors brought about by zero contact.
b. Try thinking of forgiveness in terms of “forgiving a debt.” My dad should have offered me basic love, kindness, and respect. He owed me those things and I didn’t get them. When I was ready, I cancelled that debt. I have set up a life in which he owes me nothing, and stopped trying desperately to collect what was past due. What he did still wasn’t okay, I still hurt, I’m still mad sometimes, it still affects me and I still mourn for what should have been. But the debt is forgiven.
And beware the trap of many religious traditions that forgiveness means the slate is wiped clean as if the offense never happened, putting you right back into the same situation relative to the offender. That is not forgiveness. That is manipulation to maintain power.
Remember, when bank forgives an unpaid loan, they are under no obligation to give you another loan.
Forgive the debt, get it off your books, but make a note to not make another bad loan.
Forgive and forget helps the abusers. Forgive and remember protects yourself.
I really like that debt forgiveness analogy. Thanks.
Growing up, my mom was very controlling and I was an eager to please child that complied with her demands. Doing what she wanted was easier than dealing with the consequences. She was often manipulative and was easily able to get my dad on her side to guilt my sister and I into compliance on the occasions when we tried to push back. If my mom doesn’t get what she wants, she will make everyone around her miserable until they give up.
I went to college, found a spouse and moved out. The controlling behaviors didn’t stop, she just focused all of her energy on my sister, who still lives there. (She works 2 jobs and still doesn’t make enough to move out.)
That is to say… I’ve never gone to therapy and really worked out my complicated feelings for everything. I don’t have the money for it (that’s a whole other bag of stuff.) In an attempt to avoid turning into her, I feel as though I’ve gone to far in the other direction and become to accommodating of others without regard to my own mental health.
My other issue is that she was recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. She’s already having difficulty remembering if she turned off the gas stove (!!) and she isn’t allowed to drive or leave the house by herself. My sister has confided that she’s sure my parents expect her to stay around and ‘take care’ of her. She doesn’t want that and I’m sure they expect me to help out as well. After being criticized as a narcissistic and selfish brat for wanting anything different than my mother expected, this has… baffled me. I don’t know what to do. My mother had been on a very low information diet for years from me because of her attempts to control and manipulate. My sister has been the same (as much as possible in the circumstances) and spouse has promised to take my lead with whatever I want to do.
But I don’t know what to do. Does anyone have experience with anything like this?
I do have related experience, and I sympathize with you so much. My manipulative mother got dementia. My sister pressured me to quit my job, so we could take turns caring for her. I felt guilty, but I said no because I knew saying yes would have destroyed me.
It sounds like you and your sister are on the same page, so I hope that you are able to be a big source of support for each other. If you and she can come up with what you’re each comfortable with doing regarding your mom (which may be nothing, and that would be okay), validate each other as much as possible. And confiding in just one trusted close friend helps so much, too. I’ve learned the hard way that being well meaning isn’t enough for role of confidant,though; the friend must be actually insightful. I don’t confide in people who say things like, “But I’m sure your mother appreciates [whatever].” That just makes me feel worse.
If your mom doesn’t have savings for professional help, you might reach out to a nursing home that has a social worker on staff to discuss government funded options. I always feel better with more knowledge.
If anyone pressures you to take care of her yourself, just no. Not everyone is cut out be a caretaker even when abuse wasn’t a factor. Shut down any feedback like that immediately (“Everyone in the family is doing the best we can” with subject change).
Also, I often reread Captain Awkward advice about boundaries to reinforce that I have the right to take care of myself. It’s been enormously helpful.
I’m so sorry you are doing with this. Jedi hugs if you’d like them.
I have semi-experience in something similar, and in my situation, I was the younger child at home. I stuck around for years with the abusive parent, as their health and situation got worse and worse, but I had to stay to be the Good Child.
And then I left.
And a year after I left, the parent ended up going to a nursing home where actual medical professionals, who are paid for their work, can take care of Parent.
If I had stayed, the parent would still have gone to the nursing home, but then I’d have been socially pressured to stick around around to manage *that*. There’d be never ending of managing Parent, there’d be never ending of never having my own life, because it would be subsumed by my parent. And maybe that would be something I would be willing to do, if parent did not have such a long history of abusing me. But as it was, I was not going to sacrifice my own life for someone who always, always saw me as a servant, as lesser, as someone they never wanted.
I don’t regret leaving. I think some of my siblings wish I hadn’t left, because it puts the burden more on them. But I don’t regret it. I visit the nursing home every couple years, which is still more than I’d prefer, but I still have to do something to be A Good Child. But that’s it.
If my parent had wanted me to nurse them through old age, should have cared about me at any point in my life, ever.
Unfortunately, yeah. My abusive mom has an undiagnosed mental disorder similar to schizophrenia (very complex paranoia and believing she’s being spied and persecuted by anyone who interacts with her; undiagnosed because she believes her perceptions are real and refuses treatment) which started acting up a lot when I started getting therapy and becoming healthier emotionally and more independent from her. I did all I could to get her help till it became unsafe(r) to stay and I had to move in with my also-busive-but-less-so dad, but my sibling is still at home, and our relationship has suffered a lot.
What helps is remembering I did my absolute level best and that I’m of no use to anyone if I hurt myself to try and help, and that my job right now is taking care of me. I cannot do more, so I say “no, sorry” and remind myself (and my family) that there’re others able to help (just unwilling) and that this is not my fight anymore. And I mourn my lost closeness with my sibling, extend another olive branch when I feel strong enough to take a no gracefully, and spend time with people who love me and want me around.
It’s very hard, but I think you should stay firm on your no. It helps you, and it can help your sister to see you modelling healthy boundaries around your parents.
If in Canada or US contact your regular doctor and theyll put you in touch with a community health worker (covered by US insurance under your own coverage, possibly free if no insurance) who does this work all the time. They will know every resource you can tap and they are there as your advocate in this situation, to help you deal with everything that can come up. I hope similar available in many other countries.
Coming in with some positivity.
I’ve been estranged from my family for 7 years – since then I’ve built a public identity that they’ve now found, and are attempting to communicate with me again. Obviously receiving the first message was triggering, but I’m coming to find that at this point in my life, I’m not as afraid of them as I expected to be. I’m accessing good support and while it’s a pain to have to bring up security concerns with my employers + venues, people believe me and take me seriously now in a way they didn’t when I was first leaving.
I feel stronger. I feel like they can’t threaten me or my career. And I’m reconnecting with cultural services as a result, so ultimately this attempt at getting back at me and dragging me down has just ended up being a testament to my resilience and how well I’ve cultivated and nurtured my life without them.
I hope everyone in this thread gets to experience this feeling sometime down the road, too. Freedom is possible.
Has anyone here found themselves in a situation where they actually want to be closer to their family, but their family just… won’t?
I had a horrible relationship with my parents growing up, but in her 50s, my mom (who was the worst — my dad was mostly just not-there) had some big revelations and made some major life changes, including dealing extensively with her hatred of gay people (which made coming out REALLY awkward!). She’s still got some issues, but overall I really love being around my parents and siblings. The problem is that I moved to another state several years ago for a job, and pretty much the minute I left, I became dead to them — everyone else in my family still lives within an hour’s drive of each other, and I can only be physically present a couple of times a year. And when I’m not, it feels like they just don’t want me. Nobody ever calls me unless I call them first, no one ever wants to come to visit unless they were going to be here anyway for something else, I get left out of ALL the major family news unless my sister-in-law lets me know about it (she’s a champ, honestly), and when we do talk it just feels like my mom is there to show up, dump off the latest surface-level gossip, and then hang up.
I feel like I should feel lucky because my girlfriend has a VERY close-knit family that loves me and lives nearby, so I have a place to go on holidays and stuff, but they also have a lot of the same toxic no-boundaries issues that my family had growing up and it can be really triggering in bad and “good” ways (like, my girlfriend’s parents have ALWAYS been incredibly supportive of her lesbianism, even as they were horrible to her about other stuff, so I’m both angry at them for shaming her about certain things and bitter that she got to grow up in a house where she wasn’t abused for her sexuality).
I know that I should just let it go because if my parents wanted to talk to me, they could fucking talk to me, and they don’t. It just hurts so bad to know that, for example, I can’t have the experience now of having a mom who actually loves and respects me and is no longer a raging homophobe.
Oof. Vent over. Sorry y’all.
That sounds tough. It still seems like your mother is putting herself or her values before her actual child. Which is very poor. You do still get permission to grieve what you haven’t had – making improvements in one area doesn’t mean people are actually being kind or meeting your needs.
This might be a little too tangential, but does anyone have tips/thoughts on interacting with friend groups from happy-family backgrounds?
Right now, the friends I spend the most in-person time with are a bunch of very lovely women with whom I have a lot in common–late 20s/early 30s, first/second-gen immigrants, passionate about community care and social justice, love dissecting pop culture along academic axes for fun–but the more I get to know them, the more I realize that they all have some basic emotional foundations and instincts that I just don’t.
I feel really awkward whenever the topic of families comes up, because I don’t have any cute stories to share and I can never relate. Anything I can think to say will DRAMATICALLY change the tone of the conversation. I know that from experience, because they’re thoughtful Midwestern people who try to engage me if they notice I’ve been weirdly quiet, so I’ve dropped a few meant-to-be-jokes and casual-statements-of-fact that they absolutely do not know how to deal with.
Sometimes in conversation it becomes clear that they’re all making broad assumptions about, e.g., the idea that guardians are a source of comfort/care for children, and I don’t know how to either 1) explain, necessarily using examples from my own life and suddenly making this the Sad Story Hour, or 2) make the appropriate facial expressions/noncommittal responses to fly under the radar and not make someone else’s story all about me. Neither option feels great tbh.
(Potentially complicating factor: although I’ve been going to therapy for almost 18 years, I had about 16 years of truly awful, harmful therapists and have only recently started feeling safe enough to actually unpack some things. This is great long-term, but it also means that I suddenly have a lot of Feelings(TM) right underneath the surface all the time.)
As someone from a (mostly) happy, definitely non-abusive family, who is also a liberal in the midwest: it’s okay to dramatically change the tone of the conversation or tell a sad story. Being part of the LGBT community, unfortunately, many of my friends do not come from safe, accepting families. If your friends are like me, they can handle the awkwardness of finding out you don’t.
I think that, while these conversations are never, you know, happy, they’ve gone especially well when my friend is reaching out for specific support. Like, maybe they explain they can’t relate to happy family holiday stories because [then they tell a sad story], but then they ask if I could help them make new, unconventional memories this holiday. And that’s a relief because it gives me something concrete to do with my empathy besides just letting it sit and pool into pity, which doesn’t help anyone.
That said, it’s also totally fine if you just want to, you know, be heard and understood without having a specific request! You can just be like, “Listen, I know you care about me, and there’s something I want to tell you.”
I know sitting down and telling a whole story can be hard, but in my experience, it works better in the long run than single-sentence statements or jokes. Because then I’m like, “Should I ask a follow-up question? Maybe that would be prying. On the other hand, maybe not asking a follow-up question is dismissive? I guess I’ll follow my friend’s lead.” And then that lead might be…nothing. And the awkward silence just keeps going.
This frustrates me too, in the same way conversations with white friends, or friends with rich parents does. I don’t have a solution – I just kill the mood. LOL
I mean, I don’t ever want to have to air out my trauma on command, but if I make a joke that reminds them their experiences aren’t universal, I figure I’ve done them a favour – at the very least, I feel I’ve asserted some space for my own experiences.
+1 definitely making a joke works
I kinda just go with the honest approach in that situation. A combo of empathy and honesty has breezed me right past any awkwardness you might expect—if you can be happy they’re happy and ask a few questions about their backgrounds or plans, throw in a little “My family was very different, so I’m curious,” then transition into sharing how YOU relate to family… Then it’s like, a bonding moment instead of a downer. And tbh, every person I’ve met who sincerely cares about me has been happy to learn about me and support me, and not at all unhappy about the change in direction.
“fly under the radar”
Unfortunately I’m something of an invisibility expert IRL, so I’d say on the occasion that you want to just lay low, simple follow-up questions about their family are perfectly satisfactory. And it’s ok to share similar stories about someone who was more positive and family-like in your life, like a teacher, neighbor, coworker. If pressed, perhaps, “the less said about my family, the better.” “My family of origin was extremely unhappy, but I’ve made a family for myself later in life.” Followed up by deflecting questions about their own family. Sorry if I’m pointing out the obvious, but personally when I’m pressed about a particularly raw topic, the obvious doesn’t occur to me; I feel like the thing I’m afraid of is the only way out of the situation. I also think the fact that the folks who Don’t Get It are so dang loud about it, obscures the fact that there are an awful lot of quieter people who do Get It, or are at least familiar with the concept.
If you’re wanting to point out that not everyone’s family is That Way, without necessarily soliciting support from those around you, yeah I hear you that it’s pretty tough. One possibility might be simply, “your [mom] sounds like she really cares a lot about you, that is so lucky.” “You’re very fortunate to have your brother around, he’s a good man.” “Yes, responsible guardians who provide real comfort are worth their weight in gold.” I admit there’s a passive-aggressive way to say this, which I don’t see the point of really, but if you’re *actually* happy that the person telling the story had that, even in a bittersweet way, I think it comes across and also reminds them that it isn’t always so (if they’re insightful and sober enough, here’s hoping).
Telling an example story to someone who Gets It can be soul-satisfying but when it’s a table full of people who don’t get it it is freaking awful (although my own family isn’t a horror story, they just Have Problems). And I’m not sure it’s even possible to do without it being implied that you’re asking for support (if in fact you’re not). And when someone tells me their shocking story, I find it hard to offer real support around the dinner table, in front of everyone, even though I’d like to. I try and it falls flat. Some people have told their one Example Story so many times that it’s become a big Dickensian production with added humor and I’m really not sure how to react then; they’re hurting, and also performing, so do they want me to laugh or what? And if I’m in a situation where I can actually offer support, please know that that makes me feel good, even if the person has “killed the buzz.” One less prosaic Thanksgiving conversation is not the end of the world!
What you said about not wanting to make things all about you and your sad story, but also being in therapy and having your feelings just under the surface, and not knowing how to act, I think would be perfectly satisfactory to say if you want to just be honest and vulnerable about it, by the way. Made sense to me.
Mostly I don’t think about my estrangement unless it comes up, which it does during the holidays. I’m glad not to be fielding fraught conversations or dinners with people I hate, it’s truly a relief. I never had a good holiday with my family, so I’m not missing any nostalgia here, but I would love to be able to craft a celebration as an adult and build my own traditions. But I find myself unable to get people to attend or place the same value on the thing I’m trying to build.
There’s a particular sense of alienation about my friend circle all going off to their respective families of varying functionality during the holidays, when I’m an extrovert who would love to be hosting (and successfully hosted a wonderful friend-xmas, once!). I don’t blame them for loving their families, but it’s difficult to feel like you’ll ever be valued at the same level as other people’s families (some of whom are, lbr, middling levels of crappy). My friends see my celebrations as like, a nice party, when I’m trying to build a sense of community they were born with access to and don’t need to get from me.
Happily, this year my best friend and chosen-brother has decided to stay home for xmas this year, and I think that will be enough!
Does anyone else feel something like this?
Anon, Y E S. For me, Christmas is a weird and awful time if I visit the family – I’m very clearly an outlier and an afterthought, and I hate it. But when my job made it impossible to travel nine hours each way to see them for Christmas I was at such a loss. I got invited over to a friend’s for a casual Christmas Eve, but the day of? Silence. And here I was, wanting to express love and caring and togetherness and my single self was, again, No One’s First Priority.
It’s happening again this year at Thanksgiving (I’m the only one who can’t take days and days off to fly out across the country to this year’s hosts) and I’m just frustrated about it again.
I don’t have any good advice, Anon, I just absolutely hear you.
I feel you, Reez, about being No One’s First Priority. Been there. Still often there, but… it comes and goes. Regardless of if I’m alone for the holidays or not, regardless of my outlier status or being an afterthought, I do find moments of peace and some degree of contentment.
I hope you do too. Solidarity. I hear you.
Oh gosh, #1233 was so, so timely for me.
I’m LW #701: https://captainawkward.com/2015/05/06/701-how-do-i-care-for-my-ill-and-grieving-mom-when-i-am-stretched-so-thin-myself/
In the years since I wrote in asking for that advice, a lot has happened. The biggest thing is that “Happy-but-complicated” marriage ended. It turned out to be an emotionally abusive marriage, in which my husband (like my mom) did not respect my boundaries and was himself a “bottomless pit of need”.
And as I’ve been doing the work to unlearn the patterns that had me curled up in a pretzel of knots trying to make him happy and fill his needs (THANK YOU therapy), I’ve also been discovering exactly how far back those patterns go, and how very similar my ex-husband and my mom are in some pretty key, and pretty toxic, ways.
My mom’s illness lifted, for lack of a better word, about a year ago. And since that time my relationship with her has gotten worse, not better, because she has more energy to push on my boundaries, and because I’ve just done the hard work of learning to set and (try to) enforce those boundaries with my ex-husband and I’m more practiced at it. Being more practiced doesn’t make it less exhausting to repeat stating a boundary 5 times in a row when she’s pushing back on it, though.
Things came to a head recently when my mom (indirectly, until I called her out on it) said she doesn’t feel comfortable with me remaining her Power of Attorney with our relationship the way it is. In response I invited her to a therapy session with me and my therapist, and that session was revelatory for me.
During the session, my mom brought up a situation where she saw me active and in charge and involved, an afternoon from when my dad was sick and he’d been helicoptered into a hospital near me and I was the only one who could get to him before he went into surgery, and she’d thought “This is a whole new nothingintheverse!”, but that I went back to my passive self after. And the comment really made me think – what was it that was different about that situation? The way I’d acted in that situation felt like me to ME. And what hit me was that in that moment, I had agency to act. No one else could be there in time, so I had the ability to make decisions, take charge, and do what was needed.
And in my relationship with my mom, in any other circumstance, I do not feel as though I have agency. Anything I suggest, she criticizes and usually dismisses for one reason or another. Unless I do exactly what she wants me to do, in exactly the way she wants me to do it, it will not be enough for her, so if it’s a thing I feel I can’t do, I have the choice of either pushing past my boundaries and doing it anyway, or not doing anything at all (despite having offered several alternatives I’d be happy to do) and then being seen as the un-involved, uncaring daughter. It’s a no win situation.
During that therapy session, a few other things of note happened:
-My mom indicated that she wished that I had the kind of caretaking relationship with her that she’d had with her parents when they were older/sick, but had accepted that I’m a “different person” than she is. Later in the same session, she denied saying she wanted that kind of relationship.
-My therapist asked my mom to describe what a “better” relationship with me looked like, and my mom couldn’t come up with anything concrete at all. Like – she was totally stumped.
-When I suggested that one thing that would be concretely better for ME would be if she could come to visit me occasionally, even if it was using a ride sharing service or coming with a friend who could drive her (currently she feels incapable of driving the 45 mins to my house, so all of our visits are me driving to her area), she immediately dismissed the idea, saying she couldn’t use Lyft because she’d tried before, and that she didn’t feel comfortable asking a friend to drive her. She eventually relented somewhat, saying “it probably won’t work, but maybe,” but then implied that I had asked to meet her halfway between our houses, not “meet me halfway” figuratively like “come to my house sometimes”.
-My mom remembered certain events differently than I did, and when that happened she would say, “Oh, I don’t remember it that way at ALL. But I believe you that it happened.” My therapist called her out on that, letting her know that this wasn’t validating my experiences.
-My therapist called my mom out on the wording of something she said, and my mom responded (in a dismissive tone), “Oh, I didn’t use the right words.” She’s said that to me often in the past (see also: “Oh, you’re so sensitive!”), but it wasn’t until my therapist tried to correct her on this that it occurred to me how AWFUL it is that my mom says those things. I always knew it was hurtful and frustrating, but I had no idea how to articulate it in that relationship.
-When I spoke about the issue with agency, and how I frequently bring up suggestions for ways I can help within my own boundaries but she doesn’t take me up on them, she got confused. “So I need to take you up on the suggestions you make or you don’t have agency?” and when I said “No, but when you constantly say or imply you wish we had a closer/better relationship and that I was doing more, but refuse to take me up on all the things I *do* offer, it feels like either I have do exactly what you want or I’m being a bad daughter,” she replied with “Of course not! I appreciate and see all of those things you do! When do I say you’re not doing enough?” and I had to point out to her that her saying I wasn’t doing enough was the EXACT REASON WE WERE IN THE THERAPY SESSION.
The therapy session after this one, when I saw my therapist alone again, she told me that my mom might be the most passive-aggressive person she’s ever met, and that FLOORED me. Because, you see, it’s TOTALLY TRUE but I’m entirely unused to thinking of my mom in that way, because I’m so good at interpreting what my mom’s actually trying to say. And reviewing how the session went, realizing how my mom totally gaslights me – saying things, then saying she hadn’t said them/wasn’t saying them, because she’s saying them in passive aggressive ways so she didn’t “really say them”, or occasionally admitting she might have said them but blaming her poor memory.
In the wake of all of that, I’m left feeling honestly kind of shocked. Shocked that my mom showed enough of her true colors in that therapy session that my therapist – and *I* – could actually see those behaviors clearly. Shocked at how bad some of that stuff is, and how long it took me to recognize it as bad. Shocked because the narrative I have in my mind is that my mom was a really great mom and did her best, and I still believe that in a lot of ways she was in fact a really wonderful, caring, supportive mom, but how do I reconcile that with everything I’m suddenly truly seeing clearly for the first time in my life, and the factual ways it has shaped me and left trauma footprints that my ex-husband was able to follow so easily?
And how in the world do I move forward in my relationship with her, knowing all of that?
I hear ya, nothingintheverse. I have no answer to your question but I do have a fist-bump of … congratulations?… that you are seeing this and that you are free of a draining ex and that you are doing this work… WELL DONE YOU.
Thank you for the update! I have read your letter on multiple occasions while going through my own journey and the “blaming her poor memory” is EXACTLY what my mother did in the 2.5 therapy sessions she did attend (yup, she showed up half an hour late and tried to gaslight my therapist for “not inviting me,” and my therapist was like “no triangulation, so what’s your role in this conflict?” Momster hasn’t gone back and has since blamed me for our estrangement). I chose to go no-contact in the end, so I truly hope you find whatever balance works for you to heal, forgive, and move forward. Here are a few books I’ve been working through:
1. “The Emotionally Absent Mother: How to Recognize and Heal the Invisible Effects of Childhood Emotional Neglect” by Jasmin Lee Cori
2/3.”The Completion Process” and “The Anatomy of Loneliness: How to Find Your Way Back to Connection” by Teal Swan
4. “When Pleasing You Is Killing Me: by Les Carter PhD (I used to tell myself “I’m not a people-pleaser I just like to heeelp”)
5. “Complex PTSD : From Surviving To Thriving” by Pete Walker (the most impactful book on the list, especially describing the 4 F’s and how the coping/defense mechanisms of childhood actually erode intimacy in adult relationships)
6. “Healing the Adult Children of Narcissists” by Shahida Arabi (no diagnosing… just added because Mommy Dearest’s passive aggressive nature, forgetfulness, denial, minimization, scapegoating, and gaslighting are allll featured in this rare gem)
I’m still working through my own cognitive dissonance (ie. “how do I reconcile that with everything I’m suddenly truly seeing clearly for the first time in my life”). I hear you, it’s so hard trying to rectify the Mom who I thought she was, and the Momster she turned out to be… Lucky for you and me, seeing her for who she truly is, accepting the uncomfortable truths – is half the battle. Good for you for stepping up and doing the emotional work nothingintheverse. Thank you for being so vulnerable and sharing your story. I doff my cap!
Man, I feel this so hard. Like, to the point where I think the same therapy session would have gone the same way for me. And I read your original letter, and your relationship with your husband sounds like what my sister went through. It took her YEARS to see what he was doing to her, and your phrasing: “left trauma footprints that your ex-husband was able to follow” is perfect. That’s exactly what happened to her. As for me… it’s been a few years and I’m no longer “floored,” but I remember the shock of realizing just how bad things were and how warped my perspective really was.
My mom is now cut off. But I’m not sure I ever would have taken that step if it weren’t for a Certified Big Thing she did wrong. I needed something I could point to, and this was it (CONTENT WARNING FOR SEXUAL ASSAULT): When I was about 16 (25 years ago), I was date-raped/sexually coerced by a 35-ish man from my karate class. He was a pretty classic predator; he and I were close for a year before he ever laid a hand on me, and by the time he did, I couldn’t say no to him, even tho I didn’t want to and he knew it.
I told my mom about it a couple days after it happened. And she just listened and said “I don’t know what to say.” And didn’t bring it back up. When I did, she told me that she wasn’t sure I was telling the truth and that’s why she hadn’t acted on it.
The thing is, she was right in a way, because I had changed the details some. I said that I was *forcibly* raped, because I knew that the story of what had actually happened (I let him do things even though we both knew I didn’t want to) would not garner my mother’s sympathy. She would have blamed me. So I said he’d done it by force. And she ignored it, and when I pressed, told me I was lying.
And here’s the thing that really messed me up: I agreed with her. For like, 20 years. Because I’d changed the details (in hopes she’d actually sympathize with me), I told myself I was not a victim, but a shameful promiscuous liar.
It wasn’t until about 6 months after I moved halfway across the country and started going to therapy that something occurred to me: Why *wouldn’t* she believe me? She’d told me in the past she didn’t like how much time I spent with this guy. He was a dude in his 30s that regularly took her 15/16yo daughter out! Even if I was the shameful promiscuous liar she made me believe I was, isn’t there something FISHY about that? Why on earth would she not at least follow up?
She wouldn’t have had far to go. The master of the karate school was also the county sheriff. Why wouldn’t she at least have called him and given him a heads up?
The answer, of course, was that she didn’t want to deal with it. My whole life, my mother’s strategy for me was to make me doubt myself so I wouldn’t doubt her. Make me hate myself so I wouldn’t be angry with her.
But I didn’t know that. So I wrote her an email asking her why she’d never told anyone. And she responded by telling me that I’d never told her I was raped. She denied the entire thing ever happened. Her response was… poisonous. Full of wounded innocence and mean little darts that slide into your skin so clean you don’t realize you’re hurt till you see the blood.
I responded again, this time with the details she’d claimed were missing from the first email. She didn’t respond at all.
And I started to get angry.
And meanwhile, she was liking my posts and pics on facebook and writing cheerful little comments like everything was fine. And I got more angry.
It took a few more months, setting boundaries and letting her cross them, and then I went no contact.
Every now and then I doubt that decision. I think of her own awful childhood and wonder at what point we stop being products of our own abuse and need to be held accountable for what we inflict on others.
But for the most part, I have this Big Thing that I can hold onto like a rock when I start to doubt myself, when the gaslighting begins to set in. Because obviously it wasn’t just that one incident. My life with her was a nightmare. But most of it was stuff that she can deny, and this is rock solid proof of her hyprocrisy and manipulation.
I don’t wish on you an incident So Big that you have Certified Legitimate Reason to divorce your mother. But I hope you’re able to see the pattern itself, which you’ve identified and has been confirmed by a professional therapist, as the Big Thing that allows you to do whatever you need to take care of yourself, up to and including letting go of the need to “move forward” in your relationship with your mother at all.
Hey Cap, got nothing to add to the slew of great comments here–just wanted to say that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so seen/understood by anyone as much as I felt yesterday, that I really appreciate you sharing that with the wide internet. Thanks.
Hi folks – letter writer #914 here. I cut off my abusive parents (and wrote to the Captain) about three years ago.
One thing I really want to co-sign in this post is the sentence “you don’t have to decide all at once, forever, right now.” After I cut my parents off I spent a lot of time worrying about When or Whether I would ever speak to them again, and How Would I Know – was there some sort of test I could do, some kind of diagnostic for Knowing When It Will Be Safe? That’s part of what motivated me to write to the Captain – a sense that I needed some sort of manual for navigating this, some kind of flow chart to guide me through.
The Captain’s answer, a long with a bunch of therapy, helped me slow down and come to terms with the idea that there was no Universal Standard that would tell me if or when I could resume contact, that the important thing was learning to trust my own feelings which was something that both my parents had prevented me from doing in different ways.
And then Life Happened in a way I couldn’t have predicted – I got severely injured in January this year. I am OK, but I am still feeling effects from the injury now and probably will do years from now, and it’s an injury of a type that could very easily (think: a millimetre to the left, etc) have been much more serious (think: lifelong changes to daily functioning). I started to feel that I wanted to tell my parents about it. So working with my therapist, I have started tentative contact with my mum. She has been able to respect my boundaries so far and allowed me to take the lead on very slowly increasing the amount of contact we have. I don’t know how it’s going to go but it’s promising.
My dad, on the other hand, was a different matter. I was psyching myself up to tell him but I took a little time after I’d told my mum, because it had been quite a lot of emotional effort and I needed to regroup and think about how I was going to approach it. But it turned out, in that time, that my sister told my grandma and my grandma told my dad – so he had actually known for 3 weeks that I’d had a life changing injury, and he hadn’t reached out to me, not even a quick message. I’d told him 3 years ago I didn’t want to hear from him until he was ready to apologise over an argument we’d had, and… I guess he still wasn’t ready to apologise? And even hearing that I’d been severely injured wasn’t enough to break him out of his pettiness? Anyway – after that I was able to finally let go of the guilt I’d had about breaking contact, and decide that I wasn’t going to reach out to him and that I don’t need him in my life, indefinitely. And for the first time, that felt like a peaceful decision.
So the moral here is – I’d spent all that time worrying about a manual and a roadmap, but in the end I could never have predicted getting injured. And when it came to it, I knew when it was time (or in my dad’s case, when it wasn’t time) to make a decision. I can trust my feelings and I can rely on future-me to use the information she’s got, I don’t have to pre-programme it in advance. So for anyone in a similar situation: future-you has got this, I promise.
The last time I ever spoke to my dad was just before I hopped out of his (slowly) moving car while he was in the middle of his latest “I told you so” rant about my then-recent breakup. I should have gotten my cats from his house first, because he “donated” them (his choice of words) to a high-kill shelter that same night.
My mom also taught me a valuable lesson, despite her best efforts: always assume an alcoholic is drunk. It has literally saved my own and my child’s lives.
Rusty, I’m sorry to hear what you went through, and I’m so sorry about your cats. That’s a particular kind of awful, taking revenge on you through others — creatures you loved and cared for. That’s so very terrible.
Any advice for when your parents split up and dealing with the holidays? I feel like I’m 13 years old, except I’m 42, and my dad abruptly moved out after 25 years of threatening to do so. Both of my parents blame me for the split because I “demanded” an apology and “held the family hostage.” (I know, logically, it’s not my fault. And therapy has helped immensely. But when I wasn’t around to demean, my dad got the brunt and then the shits of my mom’s behavior. Shitty all around. My mom is not a nice or safe person; she doesn’t have a filter for things that are “just truths,” which somehow tend to be absolutely awful. Thanks, therapy, for identifying that as emotional abuse. I cannot recommend therapy enough.)
I don’t have to do Thanksgiving; I’ve got a Friendsgiving that’s been tradition for years that I’ve already put on the calendar. It’s the “first Christmas” where there isn’t a family home to go to, and I unfortunately don’t have enough vacation time to travel somewhere, and both of my parents are going to want to see me. Any ideas? I think i just need to say “nope, doing something else this year!” and not be swayed by the guilt trip. Thank you for this thread, if nothing else, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.
Team Doing Something Else This Year, even if its laying in bed in nice pajamas watching Netflix and eating caramel corn. Plan Before/After Christmas things if you must, but opt out of Christmas entirely. I would phrase it as “wanting to build my own traditions” if I had to, otherwise I would just say nope, I have Other Plans.
Seconds “do something else”. Adult children aren’t obliged to spend every holiday with their parents even in a happy family situation, your time is your own. Parents being disappointed at not seeing you is understandable, but guilt trips aren’t justified. It is also OK to just see one parent if you prefer to, but the fall-out of that can be more challenging (something that also really isn’t fair to you).
Thirded. Please don’t spend Christmas with people who treat you as a scapegoat for everything, up to and including their own fucking divorce. Please do something nice instead.
I’m as estranged as I can be with the F, given that M is still with him. I resent that going back for holidays means I have to be around him. I’m physically uncomfortable being in the same house. I’ve also just realized recently that while M is the “good parent”, she didn’t protect me from him….possibly b/c to do so would mean that the abuse would be re-directed towards her, so she let me be a target.
I’m angry that I get blamed for calling him out on things, for not pretending like we’re the happy family that my M would like me to pretend we are. That she has sympathy for F, when, for example, I didn’t invite him to a life event after he had tried to sabotage it. Yet she does not have sympathy for me for having endured an emotionally abusive parent. Why is it that I’m the problem for not pretending, rather than the realization that he is the problem because he caused the situation by being a shitty parent?
I think that enablers get something from enabling their partner’s abuse or other toxic behavior. It feels comfortable for them. It gives them a place in the world and a role in life that they can rely on. It can be exciting. It activates the reward pathways in the brain. It can be addictive.
If your M were going to realize that your F were a problem, she’d have to give up that pleasure, comfort, and security. Giving him sympathy feels good for her in a way that giving you sympathy doesn’t.
This is something I’m having to figure out how to deal with. My parents live states away so we haven’t seen them in years because neither us or them has the money to travel. Which on one hand is fine because I’ve gone no contact with my dad for soooooo many reasons. My mom tried to pull the “but faaaaaaamily” guilt trip and I told her all the details of what happened. I told her I still want to have a relationship with her if she wants to. But now I’m stuck with the awkward feelings of ‘Wow I’d love to plan a trip to see my mom but wow I don’t want to see my dad’….. It’s kind of hard to travel hundreds of miles and only see one person from a two person household.
I’m sorry that you’re going through this and being stuck in the middle. This is such a difficult situation. My mom was very upset when I explained how much my dad had been lying to her about me, I’m not even sure she believes me. I told her that I respect and understand her decision if she believes him because she chose him to marry and live with. She went silent and hasn’t brought any of it up again. My guess is they have a very difficult relationship and this put some things into perspective for her that she didn’t want to think about.
Because of how my mom reacted when I said that I tend to agree with Twitchy about this. I reminded her that it’s all just a show from him and she didn’t like that.
A strategy I’ve found useful when keeping someone (especially a parental type) on a low-information diet without cutting them off:
In addition to keeping private what you want to keep private, also don’t immediately tell them 100% of the innocuous, positive, “safe” stuff that you don’t mind them knowing.
The “safe” stuff you don’t tell them isn’t a secret, you just don’t tell it to them in the very first conversation after it happens. Then, if it ever comes up later, you mention it in passing as a fait accompli.
You switch to LED lightbulbs. You don’t mention it to the parental type.
Several months later, the subject of eyestrain comes up in conversation, and you say “Ever since I switched to LED lightbulbs, I’ve been experiencing less eyestrain.”
What this achieves is it normalizes the idea that they aren’t getting 100% of the information about you, but also creates the impression that the parts of your life that they aren’t seeing are full of innocuous and/or positive decisions.
In other words, if they’re wondering “What aren’t you telling me?”, the answer is “I upgraded my lightbulbs.”
I second this. I learned in college that it was much easier to tell my parents what has happened rather than what will happen or is happening now. Anything else invited unsolicited advice and anxiety over potential outcomes.
I want to say first that I have sought professional help for this issue, and while that has now ended, I’m still working my way through it, and plan to seek further help. *I* got tired of talking about it, so I’m sure my friends were tired of listening to me too.
So, when I was smol, my mom walked out on our family. My dad ended up with full custody of my siblings and I, which doesn’t happen NOW, nevermind in the late 80s. She remarried and had my half-siblings in the years following the split. As a teen, I cut contact with her for Reasons, and several years after that began to increase contact because I was tired of holding onto the anger. We had a good several years of pretty surface-level interactions, movies and the like.
Things got strained over some shared vacations, and then kinda blew up a few years ago when she was moving from one hoarder house into another, and would message me (and then have my half-sibs message me) that she needed help moving and I owed her. Excuse me? I was owed a lot of things I didn’t get either. Things have been going downhill ever since. My aunt passed away a year later and I know my mom is lonely, but I cannot be her “go to” “friend”. She’s said a few things over the years about her childhood where I realized her upbringing was probably not great, but also things about her relationship with my dad, and things about my siblings, that make my blood boil. If we were not related, we would not be friends. Earlier this year, I purposely planned a shared weekend to avoid spending too much time with her, which half-blew up in my face, and while raging about that, was when I decided that it was time, really really time, to talk to a therapist.
Currently I have her on low-contact mode. We don’t really chat, I don’t see her much on purpose, I will NEVER EVER EVER agree to spend 10 days at a vacation resort with her EVER (insert Taylor Swift song here), etc. I want to set up like, monthly dinners or something, for my own peace of mind, but I want to get through these FEELINGS before I can do that. I’m totally fine to weather her “but I NEVER SEE YOUUUUUUUU” and “I WANNA SPEND TIME WITH YOUUUUUUUUU” in the meantime.
There is a TON more history and FEELINGS and SO MUCH that I think others can relate to, but CA is not my therapist and all that jazz. My fellow survivors of childhood emotional neglect and Difficult Moms, fistbumps of solidarity. We survived their disappointment for a lot longer than their current levels, and that will never not be true.
I never knew there was something called adult child-parent estrangement until I ran across an article. I felt encouraged to know I was not alone. I haven’t heard from or have spoken to both my daughters in many years..one in 28 years and the other in 18 years. Haven’t seen two of my grandchildren or my new great-grandchild. In the beginning I tried and tried to make amends from whatever they think I did wrong. Soon I tired and decided I had a life and needed to move on. I had to make up my mind that life is way too short to grieve what years I have left. After my personal decision, I started sleep better and have an almost clear mind. I feel bad for those parents who continue to grieve and can’t get through 24 hours. I raised my girls to be strong and independent so that is why my life has moved forward..thank you for listening to another parent in a unfixable situation.
Paula, I think it’s very wise to let this go. You can’t make amends for a problem you don’t understand, and if an understanding of their concerns hasn’t come in 28 years, it’s unlikely that it will. Focus on healing yourself, being good to others in the future, and give your children the gift of respecting the distance they’ve asked for and not trying to reach out or fix it anymore.
I hope I’m not commenting too much. This is the one other thing that haunts me about people who excuse their own abusive behavior: Are they the lucky ones? This sounds petty, maybe, but I don’t want the people who have abused me to be carefree about themselves when I’ve been tortured all my life by their behavior. However, since they can dismiss their own meanness and they seem fine with superficial relationships, do they get to be happier than people who have been abused and have spent their whole lives trying to get over it and be good people while doing so?
I don’t think so. Ime, abusers use control because they believe it’s the quickest route to what they want (agency, safety, connection without vulnerability, a sense of accomplishment, meeting their parents expectations, whichever) but which can’t be satisfied via control. They might not feel true remorse for their actions, believing the ends justify the means, but I don’t think that leaves them free of angst, and I don’t think they ever truly obtain their “ends.”
I tend to think since they lack self-awareness of their own self-destructive issues, they’ll continue to self-sabotage. Perhaps they’ll get what they think their goal is, but I don’t think they’ll find fulfillment. Rather I think they’ll find that regardless of what they accomplish, something is “missing,” something their systems of control can’t fix or understand.
It comforts me to know my abusers are in prisons of their own making. They could escape if they chose to be better, to fight their way out of denial and openly confront themselves, but that’s hard, so they won’t.
Yeah, pretty much. Abusers kind of outsource their suffering. They make other people do it for them. It can be galling, but in order to recover, I think you have to stop caring about how your abusers feel or how happy they are and move on.
No. None of their relationships are real. No one truly loves them or ever can, because only the idea of who they could be if they weren’t abusers could be loved, and they aren’t that person by choice.
You can be forever alone but at least you aren’t a monster. They don’t even have that.
Hope I’m not too late commenting here, but I’ve also experienced the shit-show of my abusers “forgiving themselves” and being completely happy with their lives and past abuse since they’re “completely different people now.”
My cousin is one of them. She broke my five-year-old sister’s arm shoving her into a closet for the crime of liking Power Rangers toys. She called me any number of homophobic slurs because I was a dumpy fat kid who didn’t want to play or watch high school football. She frequently told us all we were going to Hell and would knock food out of our hands when we were unfortunate enough to have to spend the night at her house.
Then, in her twenties, she came out, divorced her husband, left her church, and went on to have a happy, rewarding, and financially secure life and a growing circle of loving friends and family. She also announced that she had “forgiven [her]self” for being such an awful fucking shit growing up. Demanded forgiveness from me and my sister too, which my sister was only too happy to give in the hopes that she would finally leave her alone (no luck there) and I will not ever grant her. To her credit, THIS TIME she didn’t break anyone’s bones when she was mad at me, but she still—over a decade later—talks shit about how “close-minded” and “petty” I am for this. And most people I talk to take her side as well.
To this day, if I even hear the words “forgive yourself” I start to see red. It is THAT tightly-engrained with my dirtbag cousin just deciding that she gets a pass for being a physically and emotionally abusive monster because she wants one.
That is so galling! I know that forgiveness is complicated but I am always so distrustful of any sort of forgiveness that comes with a lot of public pageantry.
I guess it’s easier for abusers to forgive themselves because abusers will never actually understand the enormity of what they did to others, because why would they want to. I have lot of ambient guilt from nothing in particular that I STRUGGLE to forgive myself for, and like Twitchy said, I think it comes from having someone else’s suffering outsourced to me. Even though I’m no longer part of that outsourcing system. I just saw the new Terminator movie, so I’m thinking of my ambient guilt as just some robotic guilt carrying out its directive from an abusive system which no longer exists, like Arnold lol.
I would suggest a script like I guess its good she’s trying to be a better person but that does not mean I have to absolve her of what she did to me and my sister in the past.
Or if she really wants to be a better person she will not demand or expect my forgiveness and not demand or expect me to X after what she’s done, and if she’s not interested in being a better person she I have no reason to forgive her or X her.
A person who thinks they can write off a debt they owe someone else in their name is a fraudulant accountant.
If she wants to forgive herself for giving herself a bad relationship with you fine but forgiving a dept means accepting that the money’s lost.
A person who demands a depter’s relative cover’s their depter’s accounts in a freaking loan shark.
I cut off my mother many years ago and my father a few years ago. My mother was physically abusive and my father controlling and narcissistic.
My parents would tell you that they have tried very hard over the years to have a good relationship with their stubborn, willful, independent child, but that’s not true. They have tried very hard over the years to get me to do what they want. And I’ve come to the sad realization that they can’t differentiate between those two things. They don’t know how to have a relationship with me that doesn’t involve an element of control. For my mother, that’s violence, and she pretty much dropped out of my life once there were thousands of miles between us. My father got by on sheer parental authority for a while, then he used a combination of guilt trips, bullying and gaslighting while withholding things I needed or he thought I did – money, gifts and parental affection/approval. Plus, they believe they are entitled to a relationship with me, because that’s how parent-child relationships work. Of course, when you believe you are entitled to something, you don’t bother to work for it.
My mother is waiting for me to come to my senses and return to her arms, at which point she will be the loving, welcoming parent who forgives me despite my wayward ways and the pain they caused her (presumably once she’s done venting her rage on me). My father is pushing hard against my boundaries because surely this persistence means he loves me and hasn’t given up on me, and once my boundaries fall, I will return to his arms (on his terms, of course), at which point he will be the loving, welcoming parent … you get the idea.
I don’t regret cutting either of them off. It was harder with my father because he can present as quite reasonable and rational, plus I wanted him to be the good parent, the one who saved me from my abuser. But at the end of the day, I have two crap parents, and that’s my lot in life. There’s a certain peace to accepting I don’t have the parents I deserve and there’s nothing I can do about that. I am happier and calmer without them in my life, and there’s nothing I can do about that either. If my parents don’t like that, it’s up to them to work on themselves.
(The irony is that each of my parents would criticize the other’s behavior. In fact, they would be offended that I am pairing them this way. They are long divorced and haven’t gotten along for literally my entire life. It’s the ultimate insult to say one is like the other.)
I have described it as – my family would move heaven and earth to get me the life they want for me. Regardless of my consent in the matter.
I have been lower contact with my parents for around a year now, but my mother keeps trying to get around it. During the summer I was in the hospital for mental health problems and she got as far as calling the psychiatrist of my ward, calling my childhood friends, and mailing my partner (she does not have their phone number). When I got out of the hospital, we established some kind of compromise where I would not limit her phone calls to once a week on Tuesday evening anymore and then she would stop harassing everyone around me. All of her unexpected phone calls take a lot out of me and I don’t have much as I’m still recovering from my mental health issues. I am kind of stuck now. Should I limit contact with her again and find a way around her stalking, or should I just bear with the current state of things?
The complication is that my mother has a brain injury. She already had it before I was born. She cannot deal with sensory input, emotions and impulses, nor learn new things. She has always headaches, often migraine-like. My father has always worked full-time and my mom raised me and my younger brother. I had to be responsible from a young age and got used to sorting out everything for myself and my brother. My mother cannot control herself, she will say anything she thinks of and do anything. Luckily she cannot drive, so she cannot physically get to me — I live in another city.
Because of my mother’s condition, I not only hear the “But faaaaaaamily!” but also the “But she can’t heeeelp it!”. I should just be the one who gives in, because her brain does not have that option anymore.
If I break off contact, I am not sure that she will understand why. She does not really realize the extent of her condition — she is very good at putting the blame onto others when something goes wrong because of how her brain works. She will probably throw a tantrum like a toddler and you all know how difficult it is to reason with a toddler — my mother is worse, because she will never learn.
I do have a therapist, but he does not want me to work on this yet. He says we should work on bigger issues first. But this situation costs me so much energy that I do want to do something with it.
What to do?
Janne, she really truly can’t learn new things or control her impulses at ALL? That makes your situation different from most people’s — you’re not going to be able to solve the problem, though there may be a few things you can do to contain the damage.
I wonder if a brain-injury support group might be helpful? Either for you, if there’s one for families, or for her.
Your feelings are probably the same as if she were wilfully, intentionally doing these things, but your approach will have to be different. At least try not to feel guilty because you haven’t succeeded, any more than you would if there were a river in your backyard and sometimes it washed out your stairs.
She has learned a couple of things over time, but that really takes a lot of effort and repetition. For example, she has been able to learn how to send e-mails, but that took close to 10 years for her to get used to and she still only knows one single routine for it. She does not understand the way public transport works nowadays. She is kind of stuck 30 years ago in most things.
For impulse control, she can do it for a short time so that she does not make an enormous fool of herself in public, but at home she does anything she feels like.
I can look for a brain-injury support group for myself. I have tried to get my mother to get to one, but she is very paranoid about anything medical (so she refused to go to something organized by a psychologist) and she does not want to meet anyone with a brain injury because she does not think she is like them.
I like your analogy about the river in my backyard. I think it really fits the situation. Thanks for your understanding — I often have a hard time explaining how my mother is, but you just got it 🙂
Ouch, that sounds tough 😦
You said that if you break off contact, you’re not sure she’ll understand why. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to understand! This comes up with toddlers all the time — they might not understand why they can’t have a pony, and they might get very upset and throw tantrums for months, but it doesn’t change the situation. They still can’t have a pony.
I like Serin’s perspective here: you want to look at this in terms of damage control. Your mother can’t be reasoned with, so what can you do to limit the impact she has on your life?
“But she can’t heeeelp it!” UGH.
If she truly can’t help it, all that means is that you don’t judge her for it. But you don’t have to LET her hurt you. My brother couldn’t help it when he no longer recognized his wife and thought she was an intruder. But that didn’t mean my SIL had to let him hit her.
YES, limit contact with her.
Your mother’s situation is tragic, but your sacrificing your own mental health is not going to heal her brain. The most helpful thing my therapist ever told me was when I was struggling with cutting off a toxic family member:
1. They are broken.
2. You cannot fix them.
3. You are not obligated to sacrifice yourself trying.
This is going to sound harsh, but the fact is, because your mother isn’t going to get better your family can have one mentally unhealthy person, or two. It doesn’t help her if you suffer. *You* can’t help her if you suffer. Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
If once a week phone call is not enough for her and you can handle it, twice a week.
This might not be a “bigger issue” in your therapist’s mind, but it’s one that can disturb you any day, any time, whenever she gets the idea to call you, so that makes it an priority issue. You’re still working on recovering your mental health. Random drive-by phone calls can only hinder your recovery.
You also don’t need to sacrifice your mental health to protect those around you. If she starts stalking your friends again, your childhood friends can block her number. Your partner can ignore her emails, redirect them to another folder, or block her. Your psychiatrist shouldn’t tell her a thing without your written authorization.
All of this, cosigned in every colour in the rainbow, especially the three points BDLC’s therapist gave them.
Speaking as the daughter of someone with an (as of yet) incurable mental disease: her illness is a tragedy, but it is not your fault and you should not suffer for it. Your mother, like mine, has choices in how she behaves. Limited, but she has them. She could go to the support group. She could not harass your loved ones in order to blackmail you into doing what she wants (removing a boundary that’s healthy for you, a person whose wellbeing she’s supposed to care a lot about and respect). She’s choosing to harass you and yours, she’s choosing to blackmail you, and her injury didn’t make her do that, so BULLSHIT to anyone who tries to gaslight you into becoming a doormat for her abuse.
All kinds of people get injuries and illnesses that make interpersonal relationships harder. When well-meaning people get them, they try their best to reduce the impact on others, ask for help when they need it, and apologise when they mess up. They act responsibly and accountably. When abusive people get them, they hide behind the illness as a excuse to hurt others without consequence. Let’s end this ableist paternalistic bullshit myth that only helps abusers, one boundary at a time! You absolutely can limit contact with your mother, for any reason, and yours is ironcast. Please do what’s best **for you**.
Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying this because I really needed to hear it. My sister has never been diagnosed with several diseases she may have, because by the time bipolar disorder could be diagnosed she refused to see any sort of doctor/admit to anything and was old enough that we couldn’t force her. Ditto to submiting to blood tests for lyme disease (which she MUST have, see she has ALL these symptoms, but she has a phobia of needles.)
And I have been hearing ‘blood is thicker than water, support your sister even when she’s wrong’ and ‘Put yourself in your shoes, would YOU like to be in pain/have that insomnia/go through those mood swings?’ and so forth since I was in elementary school. Every time I’ve tried to complain, or said something wasn’t fair. It continues even now that I’m an adult, and her behavior was so bad that I’m struggling to let myself describe it as abuse. But no one’s ever told me that I shouldn’t have to suffer for it. Or that she has a choice. It’s just been that I shouldn’t do this, or that, or the other thing, or I need to do these things, because she can’t and they have to be done and it isn’t fair to make anyone else do them.
I’m going to try to remember that. Thank you.
You’re welcome ❤ You really shouldn't have to suffer for your sister's pain or illness. I know that's very hard to remember, I still struggle with keeping it in mind myself, but it's true. I suggest writing it (or printing it out) in an appealing calligraphy and hanging it somewhere highly visible.
A problem with brain injuries like the one she has, is that “disease awareness” is injured. Similar to my grandma that had Alzheimer’s and did not know that she was forgetting things, my mother doesn’t realize the impact of her injury on how her brain works. I recognize that all of her reasons for not going places are coming from pure paranoia, she thinks they are very real and that she does not have the tendency to be paranoid. When she thinks that my stay in the mental health ward will cause me to become a drugged slave of pharmacy and psychiatry, she thinks that she should do anything to prevent that and that she is a very good mother for doing that. If you can choose between having your daughter drugged up somewhere for who knows how long, or calling and mailing everyone that can help, the choice is easy. We cannot talk her out of it, because she thinks it is real and does not believe that it’s her brain injury making her have unrealistic thoughts. I most of the time even cannot convince her that what she did hurt me.
It is not my fault and I should not suffer for it — I might write it on a big piece of paper and stick it above my bed. I should not be a doormat for her abuse.
Thank you. I am going to save this comment so that I can remind myself of it whenever I feel guilty for setting boundaries with my mother. I had not realized that her calling people around me was not my problem, that those people should deal with it themselves. And I now realize that there’s a difference between not judging someone for how they are and letting them hurt you. I know my mother can’t help most of the things she does, but I can leave when she does something hurtful.
Can we maybe talk about the therapy thing some more at some point?
I ask because I think a major factor for me in prolonging a lot of this toxic stuff was, well, therapy. And hanging out in some other support groups, I’m not the only one. Especially for younger folk it’s not uncommon for therapists to push a lot of this “but faaaaaamily” stuff on us too. I’ve had a lot of therapists who were really focused on getting me to take responsibility for my part in things and getting me to understand how much my mother was trying and not take such a black and white approach and all that. (It doesn’t help that my mother goes to therapy and is very, very good about twisting therapy techniques to make herself look good. Her ‘boundaries’ are a sight to behold.)
I’ve noticed that as I’m older and as I present myself in a more conventionally acceptable way it goes down, but I just find I don’t have the energy to keep going through all the emotional mess of being blamed and shamed by therapists. I’m not really a fan of just keep trying and hope the next one works out, especially given that most stuff about finding a therapist doesn’t really seem to address this sort of thing. How do you actually EXPLAIN to a therapist so that they can get it, or find one who’s not so clueless?
Do you know what your preferred outcome from therapy is? For example, could you look for a new therapist and say something specific, such as, “My family is horrible and I don’t have a relationship with them. I’m not looking for help re-establishing one, I want a place where I can walk through this decision and get out of my system all the nasty things they’ve done to me. Can you do that?” At least then you and the therapist are on the same page expectation-wise. I’m sorry you’ve had so many negative experiences.
At this point I honestly really don’t know. Well, maybe if I could find a therapist who was willing to talk about why so many therapists are bad and how to live with the damage they do. A big part of my struggle is that I went in to therapy in a position where I was hurting and didn’t fully understand why and couldn’t figure out why being around a clearly loving and concerned parent left me feeling so horrible. And the taboo seems to be on not just not having a good relationship with family, but on disagreeing with a mental health professional.
I find it very hard to live in a world that seems to be constantly reminding me that my pain and trauma is Not Okay and probably indicates something wrong with me. It’s not an internalized thing, in the sense that it doesn’t make me feel like maybe it didn’t happen or something. Rather it’s the feeling of having to get along in a world where talking about your own life and experiences is liable to get you attacked or blamed.
But I also think I kind of want an answer I could give to people like my younger self was. Something to tell people who are dealing with family issues and aren’t sure of themselves or what they want and may not be super confident, so they can protect and take care of themselves. So much of what we tell people for how to pick a good therapist seems to rely on not having the sorts of issues that push many of us to therapy in the first place. What can we tell to people who need a therapist because they can’t do those things?
Hi Jessen, I also went through a handful of counsellors, therapists and support-groups before I found someone that FINAAALLLY got it. I found support from a trained traumatologist, specializing in abuse, PTSD, toxic family dynamics, and narcissism (Psychology Today has check-boxes for finding a therapist for specific topics/issues). My therapist met my mother ONCE and was like “Yup, she’s X and Y, and I can help you deal with Z.” Your therapist is out there. They are OUT there!
Kris Godinez is a great resource on YouTube, and there are tons of YouTubers talking about narcissism, recovering from abuse, and parental estrangement (Spartan Life Coach, Peace and Harmony, Inner Integration, Lisa A. Ramano, etc.).
I highly recommend: “How to find a Qualified Therapist in Your Area: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMl1yFYoSlM
Thank you for sharing your story, it could have come from my journal. Being shamed by my family counsellor set me back on my journey – but once I found the right fit – I blossomed and found the safety I needed to heal. So will you!
Jessen, I mourn that you have experienced blame and shame in the name of family from therapists *too*; I’m also dropjawed because if I’d known there was a risk of finding that experience I wouldn’t have sought therapy for fear of it. I found something so different that I feel guiltily privileged to hear that not every client has had the same luck.
There DO exist therapists who get it. I’d suggest looking for a therapist who is familiar with the work of Alice Miller (whose books _Prisoners of Childhood/Drama of the Gifted Child_, _For Your Own Good_, and _Thou Shalt Not Be Aware_ changed my life). Donald Winnicott’s thought has had wide tool value for me also. Internalized Family Systems Therapy is a more recent method that works with the “parts” of ourselves that have taken on roles or remained unchanged from the time of the trauma.
I never attempted family therapy *with* either of my parents for many reasons, chiefly because I feared my reality would be unpersoned in favor of either of theirs (through their “looking good” as you describe). Nearly until her death my mom was convinced that I had Very Little Compassion for her because I didn’t Just Believe that she was stolen from and persecuted and had always kept the house perfectly throughout her history (this after we confronted her for untreated paranoia, hoarding and a long-insanitary fridge when it was an infection risk after surgery). She seemed very together and charming when not provoked. I did not risk joint therapy at any time.
My Dad once offered to visit my grad-school therapist “to give her an objective view of my history”. I flinched, but duly asked my therapist if she wished this. She replied, “NO! I work for YOU, not him!” I pray you too will be able to find a therapist who works for you, not your parents and not society’s idea of filial piety.
I hear you. Even if you’re good at advocating for yourself now (And going with another therapist because the one isn’t a good fit) it’s hard to get the “but faaaaamily” head trip, especially from a person you trust, like a therapist. It plays into so much of the old head trip of how we were socialized to be the therapist/priest/spouse to our parents and how we weren’t ever to rock the boat, but be a good little meatshield. I find being brutally honest helps–if they blanch and double down, they aren’t the therapist/spiritual directory/whatever for me. The last time I did this, the spiritual director I was seeing thanked me for confiding in her, which (at the time) was the answer I needed. (She was really awesome.)
I’m sorry. Unfortunately there are a lot of cruddy therapists out there. Sometimes I think the best way to find one is to get recommendations from a primary care physician. And the best ones often don’t deal with insurance networks.
I’ve had better luck with therapists who specialize in trauma.
I’m sorry, it’s awful that therapist do the same FAAAAAAMILY crap as everyone else. I had a milder experience – my therapist was supportive of me cutting ties with my family, but she had very Christian views on forgiveness and was often pushing a “they did the best they could” narrative to encourage me to to absolve them. And I’m not Jesus, you know? I have no intention of constantly forgiving people who hurt me and then ending up nailed to a goddamn cross.
I don’t know what your network is like, but can you ask local folks for therapist recommendations at all? One trick is to make a throwaway Reddit account and post about it in your city/town/region’s subreddit. That’s how we found a queer, disability, and trauma-friendly premarital counselor. (Of course, if you don’t feel safe doing this, or if that sub is full of jerks, or whatever else, it might not work for you.)
A Silver Spork, fear of JustForgiveAlready pressure motivated me to find secular therapists who were willing to treat a practicing church member without pathologizing my faith ipso facto (though my current one has dual credentials including a DMin…and gives me culture shock in a good way by saying “that can’t be what Jesus meant” when I try to say “but doesn’t turning the other cheek mean protecting myself emotionally is wrong?”). Trying to make peace with my own anger rather than invalidate it and presume it makes me the sinner in any conflictual relationship was and is a huge task in my process.
I’ve found The Narcissistic Family by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman and Robert M. Pressman to be an incredibly helpful read.
Thanks for this. It’s a reminder I needed, with my mom (12+ years no contact) allegedly ill. (I say “allegedly” because she has a habit of lying by omission, especially with health-related things.) Old head trips die hard. (And I don’t plan on contacting her, either. Lots of people get the thing she allegedly has. She’s a toxic, manipulative person before. Now she’s a toxic person with said illness.)
She’s also a textbook case of the “missing missing reasons,” and I’ve no desire to be the punching bag for her one, last time.
So I’m swimming through a sea of family brain wiring and resultant dysfunction. It is tough. I can understand where some of it came from but being on the other side isn’t nice. And all I can do is make the load lighter for my children. (Planning on therapy but just trying to make it through to December first.)
I believe you. You can do it, both December and therapy, but you do nee to try. Do it for your children if you’re not yet able of doing it for yourself.
I’m sorry, J.B., I misread your comment as coming from a parent who was realising they had inherited toxic dynamics and was trying not to pass them onto their children.
Lots of luck dealing with all the things you mentioned in your other comments and, hopefully, peaceful holidays for y’all.
Thanks. It’s been quite a year. Medication and meditation are the bomb.
When my mother died in 2006, all I felt was relief. She was always rather mean and short-tempered – by which I mean, she was angry about EVERYTHING. I could never figure out why. She’d grown up during the Depression, but her adult life was quite prosperous. My dad owned his own business, and provided her with everything she asked for – a nice, big house that was fully paid for, yearly vacations to Europe, a Mercedes sedan, a closet full of clothes and jewelry.
And yet, nothing seemed to make her happy. She was always griping, always trying to pick fights. It’s almost as if she didn’t think her life was complete unless she was feuding with someone.
She hounded me about my weight my entire life. When I was molested by a neighbor boy at the age of eight – yes, EIGHT! – she blamed me. She said I was a “dirty, nasty girl” who’d “let” him do what he did to me.
I think it was at that point that she stopped loving me. I certainly never felt much love – or any kind of feeling, other than anger and disappointment – from her after that.
I never really understood her. I certainly never understood why she was so angry. She and my father were never that happy, but they never divorced, either. She was always very secretive about her childhood. I had a feeling something really traumatic happened to her back then, but she never talked about it.
I have a sister, but Mom constantly played us off against each other. As a result, I no longer have any relationship with my only sibling.
Towards the end, I had to go no-contact with Mom. Every time I saw her, it triggered a depressive episode. I decided I deserved to enjoy the holidays instead of dreading them. I’ve never regretted this decision.
I want to tell you all about a friend who did NOT grow up in a dysfunctional/abusive home. She had/has a great relationship with her mother. She describes her mother as a great friend. They live fairly near each other, but my friend’s life is busy. She only sees her mother on holidays, and since her wife also has a close family, most years it’s only half the holidays since they spend every other Thanksgiving and Christmas with her family. My friend does set aside time every Sunday morning to talk to her mother on the phone. They enjoy the conversations, they laugh, they share. Of course, they’d never talk about her sex life. They never really talked about that even when she came out. They never talk about her finances either. It was normal to stop talking about that from the time she got her first full time job and became self supporting. And neither would talk about the slight ups and down in their relationship with their spouses because that would be weird for 2 adults in the same family. They talk about the soap opera they both enjoy, and there’s always something funny about the clients in the places they work. Books are a good topic, and the grandchildren/niece/nephews are young enough always to be coming up with something cute.
I remember being blown away when I realized that my mother was having fits because I put her on an “information diet,” but the diet she was so upset over was exactly what my friend’s mother adored. As far as my mother was concerned, she was kicked out by her ungrateful daughter who would “only” talk to her once a week. My mother wasn’t close to me because I never told her anything. She continued to wheedle to find out more about who I was dating and what I was doing sexually with them and was so upset that I wouldn’t confide in her when I stopped being manipulated into violating my own adult privacy on the matter. When I moved out and was financially unable to afford a bed, I slept (comfortably) on a nest of blankets on the floor. My mother hit the ceiling when she learned that. Her reward for that was not being invited over to my apartment again. Instead, I talk to her about books and movies, sometimes the weather, books and movies again. She’ll bring up gossip. I’ll tell her what I’m reading. An outside listener would have trouble figuring out the difference between the conversations my friend has with her mother and the conversations I have with mine, and yet I’m the one with the “troubled” relationship, I’m the one who has her mother on that “information diet.”
I’m guessing the difference is your friends mom never tries to get your friend to talk about those things.
A moment of revelation for me: my difficult mom used ‘I did the best I could!’ as a way to shut me down back when we had fights. (We don’t any more because I put her on a careful low info diet and limited contact.)
Every time I thought about putting up and enforcing a new boundary, I’d argue with myself that ‘Well, she did the best she could.’ (because the joy of being raised by this sort of mom is she raises you do most of her work for her.)
One day though I said, ‘And I am doing the best I can. Keeping limited contact is all I can do healthfully.’ it’s been easier since then.
I’ve been processing my relationship with my father in counselling for the past few months. I’ve been lucky and incredibly privileged to have been financially stable and never having to worry about money throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, thanks to my father’s job. Then when I was recovering from poor mental health for a few years after I did my degree my parents supported me financially again. I never felt right complaining about my father’s behaviour and treatment of me because of all this that he gave me. Growing up almost all my friends came from fractured homes and I felt lucky that my parents were together.
My counselor encouraged me to talk about the fear I felt towards my father when I was a child. The fact that I truly felt he didn’t love me, that he hated me. My mum taught me so many techniques to calm him and work around his problems but I was always terrible at it. Amazingly my child and pre-teen self was not good at de-escalating tactics even adults find challenging. I think my mum thought if we just behaved perfectly she wouldn’t ever have to examine within herself whether the way he was treating us was fair or kind. As we never could behave perfectly (like all kids) it was always our fault if we set him off. When I was an adult tensions got so bad that for a portion of time after I moved out I was considering cutting him off. But then things got better, he got on some medication and/or therapy techniques that worked for him I believe. So I never had to work things out like how I was going to keep seeing my mother, who I love dearly, if I cut off my father. She has also gotten a lot better at not excusing his behaviour towards her and towards us now that me and my siblings are adults. I think part of this was always her not wanting to think about whether she was happy with the way he treated her, and if was not happy with it what she would do and what the consequences of it would be.
I’ve forgiven myself for having an entirely surface level relationship with him. My counselor has pointed out this is for a good reason! Now he’s getting older and he’s becoming more and more leftist while at the same time more and more passive. He never does anything that aligns with all these great principles he has. He just rants and raves and gets worked up so we all avoid politics of any kind in conversation. I’ve been getting involved in local activism recently but he has no interest in what I’ve been doing at all. I don’t know why I’m surprised but it still hurts somehow, part of me really thought we’d connect over it.
It does hurt. And money doesn’t substitute for love. I’m glad he’s taking medication, and you have exactly the level of relationship you can handle.
And – not sure if this helps – it’s not always lack of love but not knowing how to handle things. If you ever wanted to have a deeper conversation (after consulting with your counselor) you could bring it up directly. You may not want to though.
Thank you, Captain, for all your great advice. I am skipping Thanksgiving this year, because my brother causes me great emotional harm. I feel really good about my decision, which came from reading lots of your words. My sister texted that she was “sad and surprised” that I wasn’t coming. I took some time and sent her email a fairly short email explaining why. Crickets in response. In the past, this would have hurt me badly, but I am much stronger now, happy with my decision and know I have no control over her reaction. Many thanks again.
I also want to add that Jonathan Van Ness’s memoir hit me in lots of places.
Here’s a good line “the keeping of secrets had created so much perceived acting-out behavior that came spilling out in all kinds of different ways that in my family, I garnered the title of what my therapist called “the identified patient.” Which is the person in a dysfunctional system who becomes the problem person by acting out the pain of the dysfunctional system. Which draw away attention from the true inner conflicts of the people in the system.”
Yo, from the Identified Patient in my family.
Ironically, having been made very aware of my failings, I sought out treatment and worked on them, so guess who is now the stable one in the family?
Another strategy I’ve found helpful when putting someone on an information diet while still maintaining the relationship is to have a lot of different things to talk to them about.
This sounds counterintuitive, but having a wide-ranging conversation that covers a lot of topics can make them feel like you talk about everything, thereby satisfying that emotional need.
The trick is to have most of the topics you discuss be not even about you. Things you’ve seen, things you’ve read on the internet, abstract ideas, harmless memories, etc. and try to get multiple conversational turns out of each of them.
– It sure was windy last night! Was it windy where you were? It was windy where I was! I saw one of those Halloween decoration ghosts flying through the air! Isn’t that funny? There was this other time it was really windy, and I found a pine bough on the lawn, even though there are no pine trees anywhere in sight! Remember when that tree fell down on the schoolyard when I was a kid? That sure was scary! Do you know what they did with the actual dead tree? Like did they use it for firewood or lumber or something?
– Did you see TV Show last night? I saw it too! Remember the funny part? That sure was funny! [Repeating the funny line]. Did you see the gorgeous dress she was wearing! That sure was gorgeous! I wish I had a dress like that! I wonder how much it costs? I wonder if there’s a website that will tell you where to buy the clothes on TV? I’m going to google it! OMG, there is a website like that! Isn’t the internet wonderful? OMG, that dress costs $5,000! Like the character could afford that! They should make a TV show where all characters are costumed in accordance with their salary! And housed, too! I mean, look how big their apartment is! Do they even make apartments that big?
These approaches sound a bit tedious in terms of making conversation – you’re talking excessively about a particular topic, you’re repeatedly restating the obvious, etc. If your interlocutor perceives you to be talking too much, or to be talking to the point where it’s boring, then they’re less likely to perceive you to not be telling them anything. And if they find talking to you boring and tedious, they’re less likely to pressure you to talk to them more.
Every time someone says “We’re like a family!” about a job, the family they mean is the one from Arrested Development. Or possibly one of Tolstoy’s unhappy families that are all unhappy in different Russian Literature Dramatic ways.
I’m still definitely on the fence about attending The Holidays; my parents are problematic in a lot of ways, but I don’t want to let my grandmas down.
https://www.facebook.com/groups/eachsupport/ is a closed facebook group for adults who are estranged from their family of origin. I’ve found it very helpful, lots of resources and people sharing their experiences.
“If you’ve asked me to help you explain to your parents precisely why you are cutting them off in a way that will make them understand your decision… The probability is that no matter what you say, parents who have driven you to the point of cutting them off won’t ever understand, won’t ever apologize, and they won’t ever change.”
I am here to attest to the truth of this. I cut off my parents just over a year ago, while I was pregnant with my son. That wasn’t my original intention, and I tried to address and confront their years and years of awful behavior (and my years and years of low-contact info diet), first over the phone when I told them of my pregnancy, then in carefully-worded writing when that phone call turned sour. It…was bad. They got very nasty and gaslighting, then very hurt and confused, but never once did they accept any responsibility for their behavior. And then I realized that I didn’t want to continue keeping them at arm’s length to protect my child…I wanted to protect my child by not having them in his life at all. I’d already waited until I was more than halfway through my pregnancy to tell them the news, because I was bracing myself for something bad. It took that bad thing happening to jolt me into the epiphany that I was hesitating because I didn’t want to tell them at all—I didn’t even want them to KNOW about my child. So at that point I was done, at last.
At first they respected my boundary (well, sort of…blocking and filtering helped a lot). But a few months later, not 7 days after my son was born, the extinction burst began. I had sent a “the baby’s here!” email to friends and family but NOT my parents—by then everyone had been apprised of the situation, and I had asked people to let me be the one to share news directly. Well, someone forwarded the email to my folks, and they started in on me. Their number was blocked, so they couldn’t call, and I had a filter set up for their emails (they live 3000 miles away, thankfully), but they started mailing things, sending emails from a new address, getting relatives to deliver messages to me by phone. I was a vulnerable, postpartum ball of tears and terror and soggy emotions anyway, that soon after giving birth, but that barrage just about did me in. I was so angry and hurt and also incredibly guilt-ridden for hurting them, and scared that one day my son would hate me, too, and also a bit scared (irrationally, perhaps, but hey, hormones!) that my folks would do something like show up at my doorstep or threaten us in some way.
But then I looked at my tiny days-old baby, and the righteous anger took over—I remembered that there were REASONS I cut them off in the first place, and that they were giving me all kinds of justification for my actions, in real time. I sent one last email to my father telling him to knock it the fuck off right now; told every relative that carrying messages for them was helping them continue to hurt me, and that if they wanted to bring up my folks they would lose access to me; and enacted a no-exceptions, permanent social media embargo on all photos of my son (which includes myself and spouse). And you know what? I have peace now. At least, as much peace as I can hope for in this crappy situation. And my spouse has been awesome—he ran a lot of interference while I was newly postpartum, and he is still great at helping me maintain my boundaries now.
This is not the easy road. I do not recommend it except as a last resort. I will never have resolution, I will never get them to understand my point of view, or apologize, or even stop trying to hurt me. I can never let my guard down, or stop being overly careful about what I share with other relatives or mutuals. I still feel terribly guilty, and still have imaginary arguments in the shower. But I don’t regret any of this, because they can’t hurt me while they can’t reach me, nor can they hurt or reach my child. That is the saddest victory ever, but I am still taking that sad victory lap.
If any of this resembles you or your situation, please know that you’re not alone, and that the Captain’s (and Karyl McBride’s) advice is very, very sound. Jedi hugs to all of you, and endless gratitude to the Captain for her help and compassion.
I’m so sorry you had to deal with this – and at what a stressful time, too. Good on you for setting the boundaries you needed and letting your instincts be your guide even when you couldn’t count on others’ understanding. That’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn. 🙂
Fear of exactly that kind of reaction is why I saved the explanation for family members I trusted enough to actually want to maintain relationships with… and why my cutoff to my mom herself was literally just a form of “The way you treat me isn’t right, so you’re not welcome in my life anymore.” Which, to be clear, I mention not to imply that there’s any right or wrong way of cutting someone off – but maybe to give ideas to anyone who’s grappling with how to initiate their cutoff and is trying to decide on what level of explanation is right for them. I’m currently in the process of learning that it’s okay to share the vulnerability of an explanation even with a person who’s harmed you because fully telling your truth can be a gift to YOU. However, that was only right for me after I had time away from my mom and have been able to grow some of the confidence and trust in myself that she deprived me of. When I was still at the point of not having cut her off, taking less effort to explain or prove why really helped me keep my still-budding trust in myself more secure and untouchable.
I’m so glad you’ve found a level of peace with this, drawntheroad, and I greatly empathize with what a sad victory lap going no-contact can bring. I hope your peace continues to grow – and that anyone else dealing with this has as smooth as possible a road to their own peace.
Yay, a master post for the topic/s that have given me the most grief over the past few years! I’ve learnt so much from these posts and it’s been particularly useful this year as I’ve had to reevaluate my familial relationships in major ways due to others being difficult when I try to be me. Cannot agree more about taking time off/ out from the relationship to reset, as well as the info diet. So beneficial.
Hello all! I’ll try to make this as clear and concise as possible, but I am definitely looking for advice here. Pronouns are she/her, FWIW. Backstory: I’ll be flying out to California from a few states away for Christmas to visit my dad and stepmom. I haven’t been out there for about five years now, so I would have a hard time justifying cancelling, beyond “because I hate where you live and I don’t wanna” (some people would be fine saying this; I am not). I think I have sufficient strategies to deal with most of what I hate about being out there, but there’s one issue I just can’t figure out how to handle.
So, dad and stepmom live in a teeny tiny town where the nearest Starbucks is a 45-minute drive away (yes, that’s definitely one of the reasons why I hate going out there). As a result, they often don’t have access to what (I think) most of us would consider pretty common products and/or experiences. I think the best example I can give is the time we were all sitting around the table at a restaurant, and my dad spilled a small bit of food on himself. I immediately pull out a Tide To Go stick (yes, I’m *that* person) and try to hand it to him. What follows is a look of pure wonder and puzzlement, plus fifteen minutes of progressively absurd questions (starts with “What’s that? What does it do? WHY do you have one” and ends up in the realm of “Do you ever worry about putting those chemicals so close to yourself? I think some of those ingredients might be carcinogens…”) What bothers me most about these kinds of interactions is the tone they use to ask these questions. The best way I can describe it is somewhere between fielding questions from a toddler and having a conversation with someone who’s just had a LOT of weed (I by no means object to marijuana consumption, but that is DEFINITELY not what’s going on here). It’s absolutely exhausting, and I know they don’t intend it that way, but FFS, I’m not looking to have a philosophical conversation about the ethical and/or health merits of a Wet Wipe!! Even if they don’t bring up any opinions about health risks or whatever, just that whole “curious fascination” tone feels super condescending to me. Again, probably not intended, but still…honestly, I feel like I’m being ridiculous most of the time, but there it is.
My question: is there a polite yet clear way to head these conversations off at the pass? This goes for asking what I’m reading, or listening to, or what have you: I know they’re probably just looking for a conversation starter, but again, we go down that same rabbit hole that leaves me frustrated and exhausted (I’m the kind of person who, when asked what I’m reading, will either hold up the back of the book or tell them to Google it…it’s admittedly something of a pet peeve that I probably need to work on). Am I just being a spoiled brat and need to deal? Any and all perspectives are welcomed!
BE BORING. “It’s a stain remover.” “Aren’t you worried about carcinogens?” “No?” :Confused look and long silence:
You can’t head it off ahead of time or change them and you don’t want to turn into Condescending Google Reminder so…make it boring!
I recommend veering off into another conversation. Father asks if you’re not worried about carcinogens. You say “oh gosh,” put the wet wipe away, and continue “the last time I had an accident like that I was in my car and eating a sandwich, and I didn’t think anything would spill, but then I saw a squirrel, and it was a sandwich I made myself, one with hummus, but not the chocolate kind. Anyway, I was wearing a new purple blouse. I got it on sale, and the hummus got on the blouse, and I was worried because I had an appointment with Joe Shmo. I didn’t want to look messy when I saw him, but the stain washed right out when I got home. Remember Joe? You don’t remember Joe? I met Joe at school.”
Bonus points if you’re making it all up.
Seconding the being boring, and also if they get into the weird questions, just assume they don’t want it, put it back in your purse, and change the subject.
I’m not sure if this fits here and please feel free to delete this if it doesn’t jive with what we’re going for here, Cap. I think I just need somewhere to say this, I guess.
See, I’m beginning to get better at boundaries re: my dad (one who flies into a rage and/or gives the silent treatment*) and my mom (she who enables and makes excuses). I live in a different continent, and it’s helped our relationship enormously, but that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong, yknow? But I’m trying and I’m beginning to see that when things do go badly, it isn’t always 100% My Fault Because I Inherently Ruin Things. Because more often than not, my dad, who constantly told me I ruined outings/activities/dinners out, was the one who was ruining them. I was a difficult kid, but I wasn’t the one losing his temper at tiny things and screaming at us in public, loudly and dramatically cutting the outing short and blaming us, or driving like a dangerous ragemonster because he was mad.
After visiting for Christmas last year, I objected to my dad using a nasty, sexist word to describe a lady on TV. He responded by screaming at me followed by icy, punitive silence for days while my mom told me not to say anything about it and, essentially, pretend everything was going super great. This wasn’t all that happened, but it’s the highlight, so to speak. And I’m super sick of it. I’m sick of walking on eggshells and I’m sick of being told I’m being rude or unreasonable when the eggshells break.
This year? I’m staying right where I am for Christmas. And I feel damn near giddy about it, because for once I’m not kidding myself. I’m not nervously telling myself I’m staying because I don’t have vacation time, or because I can’t bring my husband due to work, or because of the expense**. I’m staying because I don’t want to go. Full stop. This year I’ll cook and bake and deep clean our apartment, hang out with my friends and husband, and not have to deal with vicious jetlag. Awesome.
Another boundary-keeping thing that I’m proud of happened just today during our weekly Skype chat. We were talking about something depressing, so my dad suddenly changed the subject. I said that perhaps next time he could just tell me he wanted to change the subject, since it was a little jarring for the conversation to take a left turn like that.
Cue the yelling. “THIS IS HOW I TALK. DON’T TELL ME HOW TO CHANGE THE SUBJECT.”
Old Me would have yelled back. This time, I took a beat and calmly told him not to yell at me.
“I’LL YELL AT YOU IF I WANT TO.”
“No you won’t. If you yell at me, I will hang up.”
“HANG UP THEN.”
So I said “bye” and hung up in the middle of my mom saying I was being rude (oh cool, just me eh?). Ordinarily I’d have my heart in my mouth or feel like The One Who Ruins Things. This time, I took a sec to vent at my husband, then went on with my day. Maybe he’ll be huffy and angry, maybe he’ll snipe at my mom, or refuse to talk next week. Maybe he started screaming the second I hung up and has yet to stop, while my mom makes vague placating noises at him. Maybe he saw the error of his ways and has decided he will hang up his Rage Pants and become a better person right away (not likely though). Any of a number of things could be happening right now.
Thing is? It’s not my problem anymore.
* His record is something like a month, when I was a teenager. When I begged him to stop, he said trying to talk to me was pointless. Thanks dad!
** mind you, not spending >$1000 is a pretty good perk.
So super impressed with how you handled that call.
Enjoy your peaceful Christmas!
Thanks! I’m super stoked to chill with my husband and not have to endure the jet lag
Thanks! I’m kind of worried about the next scheduled weekly Skype call, though.
Do I send a “sorry, I’m busy!” email and avoid the situation altogether? Or ignore it and act like nothing happened? What if this becomes like last time and mom lies and says dad is out when he’s actually in his recliner offscreen? (I saw his reflection in a sliding glass door and called them out on it. Dad immediately walked out of the room and I lost my shit on mom, who sat there while I raged about how she fucking lied to me because it was easier than standing up for me).
Honestly? I’m losing patience with having to be the one to fix shit. I’m not Trying To Change Dad, ffs. I just don’t want to be shouted at for no good reason! But I also get gripped with terror that this time, THIS TIME, he’ll withdraw for good. So I have to Be Contrite And Fix Things. And he always acts like I’m being silly for thinking that – despite his history of withdrawing with no end in sight, or storming off to the car and driving away without a word. It’s exhausting and it hurts.
One of the most helpful books I’ve found is Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: https://www.amazon.ca/Adult-Children-Emotionally-Immature-Parents/dp/1626251703
The book talks about ways in which parents can be emotionally immature (from mildly annoying to blatantly abusive) and some of the reasons why they are the way they are (often as a result of their own childhood trauma). The most useful message of the book for me is that emotionally immature parents can’t have emotionally meaningful conversations/relationships, and trying to force them just makes things worse.
So, my situation isn’t like most of these because my family isn’t downright awful. But this year I’m dreading the annual Thanksgiving which I normally love. See, all my life Thanksgiving has been hosted by my wonderful grandmother. But this year she’s dying, definitely this’ll be her last year. So that would be an emotional occasion for anyone. I’m grieving a lot already; I haven’t yet seen my grandmother since she got her fatal diagnosis.
The problem is, my parents, especially my father, don’t like the expression of uncomfortable emotions. I learned to not talk about difficult things growing up because they weren’t welcome. My dad is sexist and self-centered in the sense that the household must be arranged for his comfort and things must be done his way, as a matter of course:and everyone accepts that it must be this way because otherwise The Dad will sulk, that can’t be! Well, I have no patience for this but I get along with him fine in small doses. But one of the things that he doesn’t find compatible with his comfort is other people having messy feelings, so this year I just don’t want to be around him. It’ll make an already weird time exponentially harder.
I’m thinking what I want to do is go down to see my grandmother before everyone else gets there (though it’ll be logistically and financially difficult to travel separately from other family members), hopefully have some good conversations with her, stick around for as much family togetherness as I can stomach, and then bail. I don’t need to be there for the big dinner.
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